The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .


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Northern journeys: where Admiralty Road’s East meets West

22 07 2020

Thought of as “ulu” or remote, Sembawang is still a place where much of the past seems still to be around. It is for this reason that it is still one of the prettiest area of Singapore even if some of its beauty spots — such as the once beautifully wooded hill on which old Admiralty House is perched, have since yielded to the march of urbanisation.

I always enjoy a walk around the lesser developed parts of the area and a stroll along its still natural shoreline. Mornings are especially pleasant by the sea, when it can serve as a very nice backdrop for an especially dramatic sunrise. The area’s lush greenery, found not only in Sembawang Park, but also in the areas where the residences of the former naval base still stand, should also be celebrated — especially with the threat of redevelopment now looming over it.

Where Admiralty Road East and West meets – an area around which some of the oldest residences built for the former naval base can be found.

An area that has been spared from redevelopment is the stretch of Admiralty Road East and Admiralty Road West that runs between Canberra Road and Sembawang Road.  Much of the area has been today marked out either for future residential redevelopment or as a reserve site (see Master Plan 2019). The use of the area to serve existing military arrangements, as a port and the continued use of the former naval base dockyard by Sembawang Shipyard has seen that its flavour has been kept, although some of its old structures fronting the road were lost to a road widening exercise that took place at the end of the 1980s. The end of the lease that the shipyard holds on the what it calls Admiralty Yard is however, on the horizon. That will expire in 2028, although the yard does intend to move its operations to Tuas by 2024. Detailed planning for the area will likely take place to coincide with this move and until then, it would not be known what the future for a still green area will hold.

Among the earliest residences to be built for the naval base were these 1929 built dockyard chargemen’s residences along Wellington Road. Many of the area’s roads are named after cities in the Commonwealth.


More photographs:

 

A 2013 photograph showing the beautiful settings in which the old residences of the former naval base in Sembawang have been given.

 

A bridge built by Japanese Surrendered Personnel on the grounds of the former residence of the dockyard’s Commodore Superintendent.

 

The former vicarage of the Dockyard Church of St Peter. The old church, which fronted this along Admiralty Road East, was consecrated in the 1950s and was demolished in the late 1980s to allow the road to be widened.

 

Timber walled residences – built in the 1940s.

 

Canada Road.

 

Many of the residences built in the 1930s are of designs adapted from PWD plans.

 

Another view of a 1930s built residence.

 

Admiralty Road West – there used to be visible entrances to underground bunkers in the area opposite the dockyard entrance.

 


 





The Government Housing gems at Seton Close

22 03 2020

Found around the fringes of the Municipality of Singapore are several government housing gems such as several that were built using blueprints developed by the Public Works Department (PWD) in the 1910s. These, which include four Class III houses at Seton Close that were beautifully renovated for modern living in 2018, can be thought of as being among the PWD’s first purpose built designs.

A Seton Close residence.

The four at Seton Close, belonged to a larger set of six put up to house senior government officers in 1922. These are again, quite different from what could be thought of as an actual black and white house and feature a fair amount of masonry and have a main framework of concrete (as opposed to timber) columns and beams. Some of the upper level framework on the balcony projections and verandah (and of course roof supports) were however of timber. Much of these wooden structures would have been coated in black tar-based coatings, and would have (as they do to some extent now) featured a fair bit of black “trim”.

The since enclosed upper verandah.

Designed with a porte-cochère, with a (since enclosed) verandah space above that would have served as a lounge in the evenings, the houses had their reception and dining spaces below. The well-ventilated bedrooms on the second level also opened to balconies, which have also since been enclosed.

A bedroom.


More photographs


 





The houses that the SIT’s architects built – for themselves!

21 03 2020

Built for Singapore’s colonial administrators by the municipal commission, government and military, several hundred residences set in lush surroundings, stand today. Widely referred to as “black and white” houses, the bulk of these residences actually exhibit a range of styles that are not quite as black and white as the commonly used description would suggest and include some with more modern styles such as a set of residences built at Kay Siang Road for senior officers of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Designed by the SIT’s own team of architects and built from the 1940s to the 1950s, the houses – like the majority of the colonial homes that were built are not technically of the black and white style.

 

One of the “air-conditioned” SIT designed houses. These were built for the SIT’s most senior officers.

One thing that marks these modern residences in Kay Siang Road are their low ceilings –  a departure from the high ceilings of the typical colonial home. This feature was for the simple reason that the houses had been designed for air-conditioning, which was much more of a luxury back then than it is today. For the same reason, the houses lack. the verandahs, generous ventilation openings, and the airiness that came with them.

A close-up of the house.

The SIT, which was set up in 1927, took on the role of building public housing and urban planning until it was replaced by the Housing and Development Board in 1960. Among the estates that it housed its European staff at was at Adam Park and Kay Siang Road, the latter being where the SIT’s senior staff were put up. The colonial estate at Kay Siang Road was developed in the 1920s and was located north of Wee Kay Siang’s estate after which the road is named. The early homes at the estate were of the Public Works Department style and it was only later that the SIT’s architects added a flavour of their own to the area.


Inside the house






The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber

18 03 2020

Some of you would probably have read the news about the possibility of a heritage trail in the Pender Road area in the Straits Times over the weekend. The trail involves the estate containing five wonderfully designed houses that were erected by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s relatively junior engineering staff in the early 1900s. The company, which was part of a group established by Sir John Pender that had a monopoly on the British Empire’s submarine cable network and hence a virtual monopoly on worldwide communications. It morphed into Cable and Wireless in 1929 through a merger with Marconi, which had a stranglehold on radio communications.

Designed by Swan and Maclaren and built between 1908 and 1919, the houses are among a wealth of several hundred residences that were built during colonial-era, which are often referred to in Singapore as “Black and White houses”. While the term is correctly applied to these houses, which are timber framed, which coated in black tar based paints do exhibit a distinct resemblance to the English Tudor-style houses from which the term is derived, the same cannot be said of Singapore’s other colonial residences.

The bulk of the colonial houses, particularly those built from the mid-1920s for senior municipal, government and military officers feature Public Works Department designs with concrete columns and beams. Although many of these are coated in white finishes and feature black painted trimmings today, not all have been coated in the same colours historically. The term also prevents us from looking at the many styles that can be found among the colonial homes.

Visits to the estate – an important note:

Much of the estate at Pender Road is tenanted. To maintain the residents privacy and to avoid causing nuisance, the estate is out-of-bounds to the general public. However, do look out for a series of controlled visits that will give the public an opportunity to visit the estate and learn more about these architectural gems. These are being planned in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided visits. Hopefully, this can start in the second half of this year.


The Estate’s Houses in Photographs


Married Engineer’s Quarters (two off, built in 1919)


 

Bachelor Jointers’ Quarters (built 1908 and extended in 1914)


Married Jointer’s Quarters (three off, built 1919)