A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House

31 07 2016

In the shadows of clutter of structures that has descended on Victoria Street post 1970s, it is easy to miss the beautiful 104 year old Parochial House that sits just across the street from Bras Basah Complex. Built with a hint of old Portugal, the building speaks of its links to a old Southeast Asian community that has its origins in the days of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph's Church.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph’s Church, was designed by Donald McLeod Craik.

Parochial House was designed by Donald McLeod Craik (who also designed the beautiful Moorish arched Alkaff’s Arcade in Collyer Quay, Wesley Methodist Church, the Masonic Hall and Jinrikisha Station) in the Portuguese Baroque style, and adorned with Gothic accents. Part of a rebuilding programme that involved its more noticeable neighbour, the current St. Joseph’s Church (also known locally as the Portuguese Church), it was completed together with the church in 1912. It replaced an older parish house that was also the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission. That had been given over to the Canossian Sisters in 1899 to allow the expansion of the convent at Middle Road that became known as St. Anthony’s Convent.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

The Mission, which operated under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau, first came to Singapore in 1825. It served a parish of Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian Catholics until 1981, after which the Portuguese Church was transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Links were however maintained until 1999 when the last Macau appointed parish priest completed his term.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

Along with providing a home to priests appointed to the parish, Parochial House also served as the residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to Singapore. A reminder of this is found in the still intact spartanly furnished room used by the Bishops on the second floor, last used in 1999. Also intact is the tiny chapel of the Bishop on the third floor. Based on an article in the 24 July 2016 edition of the Catholic News, it seems that bone fragment relics of the 12 apostles are kept in the chapel.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

The Bishop of Macau's room.

The Bishop of Macau’s room.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe, now placed in the Bishop’s room.

The Bishop's chapel.

The Bishop’s chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

Up until Parochial House was opened for the series of guided visits that were held on the weekend following the announcement of its conservation on 30 June 2016 (coinciding with the church building’s 104th anniversary), not many would have seen its wonderfully preserved upper floors. Many parishioners would however have seen its ground floor, where communal activities were held and where a canteen operates to serve churchgoers on Sundays since 1960. Some evidence of the type of communal activities are found in the room in which the church’s registers are maintained on the second floor across the hallway from the Bishop’s room. Items from the church’s past are displayed on an old wooden table here include film projectors used for the screening movies for the community.

A movie projector.

A movie projector.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

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The baptism record of the grandfather of Singapore National Swimmer Joseph Schooling.

The communal space on the ground floor.

The communal space on the ground floor.

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Encaustic floor tiles.

Several interesting features are found through the building. One is the grand staircase that takes one up from the ground floor to the upper levels, which is decorated with a carved wooden balustrade. There are also several instances of interesting tile work such as the encaustic floor tiles with patterns rich in religious symbolism. There also are nine sets of decorative tin glazed blue and white Azulejo wall tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula found both in the buildings interior and exterior. More information on the building’s history and architecture can be found on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Facebook Page.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.

The other end of the second floor hallway - the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony's Boys' School next door.

The other end of the second floor hallway – the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony’s Boys’ School next door.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Gothic pinnacles decorated with crockets top the roof structure of the building.

Parochial House in 2010.

Parochial House in 2010.

Following its refurbishment this year.

Following its refurbishment this year.

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The PM seen in the roundel along Victoria Street refers to the Portuguese Mission.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A view out the window to St. Joseph's Church.

A view out the window to St. Joseph’s Church.

 

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Mount Washington, an old world restored

17 02 2015

It will probably come as no surprise the elevated and lush green surroundings provided by the south facing slopes of Singapore’s southern ridges, with the magnificent views of the coastline it offers, plays host to several palatial residences of an old and forgotten Singapore. One that has seen some of its lost glory recently restored, is a majestic two-storey house perched on Telok Blangah Hill, Alkaff Mansion. Once a weekend escape belonging to the very prominent Alkaff family, the mansion stands today as reminder of a world we long have left behind.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The Alkaff Mansion, restored to its former glory.

The mansion, referred to as “merely one of the Alkaff family’s weekend bungalows” and situated “at the end of a long road winding from Pasir Panjang Road through the country”, is described in an article in the 16 September 1934 edition of The Straits Times:

It commands a unique view of the coast, the city and indeed, almost the entire island … Viewed from the bottom of a steep drive leading through the well-kept grounds to the foot of a long flight of stone steps, Mount Washington looks large. It has a broad façade and at each end are two turrets. On the ground floor, a verandah leads to a long narrow dining room. Behind the dining room are the servants’ quarters. On the second floor is another verandah, another long room and behind it one large and two small bedrooms … 

It is not very liberally furnished but the verandah on the first floor is a most refreshing retreat, armchairs and settees of teak having blue tapestry fittings. There are many gilt-framed photographs on easels in the house, also many heavy gilt and Venetian mirrors …

With its semi-circular white stone balustrade at the top of the bank on which it is built, its stately firs and its view, it is a most tempting place to live.

Alkaff house seen in its heyday in the 1920s (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Standing on the terrace where the house stands today, it would not be difficult to imagine how grand appearance it might have appeared at the time of the article, when it was known as Mount Washington – the name the hill also seemed at some point in time to have been referred to. The article also makes mention of a garden party the Alkaffs hosted in June of that year. The party, which had over 400 guests on Mount Washington’s grounds, was held to celebrate the appointment as a Justice of the Peace, of the Alkaffs’ General Manager, Haji Shaikh Yahya bin Ahmad Afifi.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

The staircase leading up to the terrace.

While there have several suggestions that property had so been named due to the close relations the Alkaffs had with the American community, it does seem that its had been called Mount Washington even before Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff purchased the property for $32,000 in 1916 (see “Property Sale“, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 June 1916, Page 12). Advertisements placed in the local press show that a mortgagee had made several attempts since the end of 1913 to dispose of Mount Washington, several years before it was purchased by Syed Abdulrahman Alkaff.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

A newspaper advertisement for the sale of Mount Washington in 1916.

Whether it was from the property, the grounds of which was “planted with rubber trees and also coconut trees”, that the name of hill would be derived from, is also a source of debate. Previously known as Bukit Jagoh, there are several references made to the hill as Mount Washington in newspaper reports that go back to 1908.

A view of the building's side.

A view of the building’s side.

The mansion, as is laid out today, is thought to originate to 1926 and since its heydays in the 1920s and 1930s has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes, having been abandoned after the war. It was to see use again in 1970  when it served as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society. In 1984, the society had to vacate the premises when it was acquired for an extension to Mount Faber Park and it was only at the end of the 1980s that some of its former majesty was to be restored, when it was converted into a restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

The former weekend residence of the Alkaffs is now a fine-dining Italian restaurant.

Unfortunately, the restaurant closed in 2003 and it was left vacant until an exercise in 2010 by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) resulted in a lease being taken up by the LHN Group. The group has since restored the now conserved mansion (it was gazetted for conservation by the URA in 2005) beautifully and since the end of 2011, has operated a fine dining Italian restaurant on the premises – serving to reminds us of days of glory that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The former Alkaff house in the 1980s after the World Buddhist Society vacated it (National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

The former Alkaff House used as the headquarters  of the World Buddhist Society.

The former Alkaff House was used as the headquarters of the World Buddhist Society (Radin Mas Heritage Guide).





145 Neil Road

27 10 2014

145 Neil Road, a transitional-style shophouse, stands right next to the house where Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spent part of his childhood. It was quite recently in the spotlight, not because of any association it may have had with the adjacent dwelling, but as one of two Category B winners of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Architectural Heritage Awards (AHA) this year.

A stairway into a heavenly old world.

A new stairway into a heavenly old world.

There is little not to admire about the very tastefully restored house. Owned by Ms Ho Ren Yung, the restoration efforts were the work of architects Ong and Ong Pte Ltd. While it may be the gaudy shade of blue of the house’s exterior – thought to be close to the colour of its original coat of paint (determined through a process that required stripping off each layer of paint added over the years) that first draws attention to the two storey dwelling; it is what’s seen in the inside that is a joy to behold.

The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint.

The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint.

A window into the past in the present.

A window from the past into the present.

The house’s interior is a wonderful recreation that blends easy on the eye new elements with the reminders of the past. It is where we find a space celebrated even with the separation of the spaces on the ground level through the clever use of features such as the new staircase, the old in the open courtyard, and the kitchen in the extension beyond the courtyard. It is the courtyard where we see the old take centrestage with the retention of its beautiful fish shaped waterspout, carved relief wall panels and wall tiles on the ground level, above which the shuttered windows into the past tells a story of its own.

The joy of space, even with the separation of space.

The joy of space, even with the separation of space.

The open courtyard with its fish-spout.

The open courtyard with its fish spout, carved relief wall panels and antiquated pigmented wall tiles.

 

The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard.

The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

Space is also delightfully celebrated on the house’s upper levels. On the second level this is seen especially in the living area. One also finds a very nicely furnished landing area, a study and a bedroom on the floor, beyond which the staircase leads to the attic. There is also a lovely little terrace behind the original roof – a perfect place to escape to that is also accessible through a red-brick wall encased new spiral staircase at the house’s rear. Used as a screen at the top of the staircase are two memories of the past. One is a section of the old iron front gate and the other a shuttered wooden window, a wonderful example of how the house in being transformed for the future, hangs on it what must have been a glorious past. For more information on the house and its restoration, a detailed write up can be found on the URA’s AHA site.

The second level living area.

The second level living area.

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A study on the second level.

A study on the second level.

The roof terrace.

The roof terrace.

A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace.

A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace.

The view upwards.

The view upwards.

Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows.

Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows.

145 Neil Road in 1982 with its cast iron gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

145 Neil Road in 1982 with its old iron front gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The attic.

The attic.

 

Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014.

Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014.

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An old world hidden on Forbidden Hill

14 05 2012

Hidden on a terrace behind the blood and bandages of the Central Fire Station is a delightful old bungalow set amid the luscious greenery of a hill that was once an abode of the Kings. From the world that lies below, it is hard to imagine the world that does exist on the terrace – the entrance to the grounds on which it is set in is well hidden, nestled in between the mystery of the Masonic Hall and a building that I had once remembered as housing the Methodist Book Room, now the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

The entrance to the Flutes at the Fort housed in a century old colonial bungalow is hidden between the mysterious Masonic Hall and the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

A pathway takes one along the back of the Central Fire Station up to a terrace on which the delightful black and white century old bungalow sits.

I found myself heading up to the bungalow one afternoon, headed for an event held to honour the founder of Azimuth, Alvin Lye as The Glenlivet Pioneer of the Year. Stepping through the hidden entrance way, a sign reveals that it is to the Flutes at the Fort that I was heading to, up through a shady part that ran along the back fence of the Central Fire Station, up to a world a large part of I am familiar with from my many explorations in the area during my days in school. To the bungalow that stood on a terrace above the pathway, I had not previously ventured to, and it was as much to satisfy my curiosity for what is a conserved black and white bungalow – the only one now on the hill that was in the days of the Kings of Singapore known as “Forbidden Hill“, as well as to attend the event itself, that I found myself making my way up to the terrace.

A view from the pathway.

The bungalow and an auxiliary building.

The bungalow elevated on stilts and with a generous amount of openings to keep it cool and airy – as is common in many similar houses built to house senior officers of the Colonial administration which this one apparently also built as, was built at the turn of the last century during the same period that the Central Fire Station itself was. It served as the quarters of the Superintendent of the Singapore Fire Brigade convenient in its location at the back of what had been the first and main fire station it overlooks. Although available information identifies the bungalow as being one built in 1908, it does appear that the construction took place after the start of construction of the Central Fire Station. It was built at a cost of $7,800 with the tender for its construction “in accordance to plans and specifications” drawn up by the Municipal Engineer that was awarded to the same contractor that built the Central Fire Station, a Chia Tien Siew, in May 1909.

The bungalow sits on a terrace over the Central Fire Station.

Elevated on stilts, the bungalow features a generous amount of openings that is typical of colonial residences.

The very first occupant of bungalow when it was completed was perhaps fittingly the then Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Montague William Pett, the first professionally trained Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, who arrived from England in 1905 and served as the Superintendent up until 1912. In his time here, Pett had seen to the construction of the fire station, seen to the modernisation of the fire brigade’s equipment and transformed the fire brigade into a respected and effective force.

The stairway up to the bungalow.

A view from the verandah.

The lovely setting in which the very spacious and airy bungalow off what is Lewin Terrace that served as the residence of Pett and the colonial Superintendents of the Fire Brigade that followed has been given conservation status since November 2005 makes it an ideal place to hide a restaurant, Flutes at the Fort, away that in the words of the restaurant itself, is “a vineyard inspired experience (that) affords a time away from the noise of the city and modern distractions”. On the basis of what I discovered, it certainly is a place that takes one far away from the noise of the city, and to a time

The verandah.

The bungalow is now used by a restaurant Flutes at the Fort.





Back to a time I have forgotten

10 05 2012

My entry into the world came in the still of the morning, at a time when the world beyond the delivery room had been anything but still. Insulated from tumultuous events that accompanied the first year of Singapore’s merger with the Malayan Federation by the oblivion of early childhood, life as I would remember it seemed anything but calm in the world where I had spent the earliest years of my life.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

That world is one that I have of late tried to reconnect with. It is a world of which I remember very little of – most of what I remember is associated with the Commonwealth Crescent area where I lived and of the walks I took with my parents in the area. Beyond that, it is the physical structures of the places as I remember them that I sometimes see in my memory, and ones that I have sought as a reminder of my connection to the place. Of the physical structures that I have long identified with the wider area, there were two beside the residential blocks that remain etched in my memory, across Commonwealth Avenue in what is commonly referred to as the Tanglin Halt area. One, a blue cylindrical tank – the gas holding tank of what had been the Queenstown Gasholder Station at Tanglin Halt, has long since disappeared, falling victim to the switch from City Gas production in the 1990s to imported natural gas. The other, also dominated by the blue of a prominent part of its structure, is thankfully still there, unaltered by the passage of time. That structure is that of a building that which some say is “more roof than building” – the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

The church’s interior.

The church, with a very distinctive blue slate roof that dominates its structure, is one that I very much have an attachment to, being where I had been baptised all those years back. Standing out in an area that would have otherwise been dominated by the ramp of the road that has expanded beside it, the building was designed by James Gordon Dowsett of the architectural firm Iversen, Van Sitteren and Partners. Dowsett was the creator of two buildings that also become well recognised in their time – the old Shaw House and Lido Theatre. The design of the roof, said to resemble paper being folded in the art of origami, was inspired by the shape of a tent. This, based on information on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) page on the conservation of the church, was to symbolise  the “tent of meeting” in the Old Testament. The page provides further information elaborating further that “the roof dips downwards to wrap the interior with portions touching the ground, reminiscent of anchoring pegs” which functionally also serve as drainage points for rainwater. More information on the church’s architecture and interior can be found at the URA Conservation of Build Heritage web page. The church which was blessed and officially opened on 8 May 1965 by the Roman Catholic Archibishop of Malacca and Singapore, Monsignor Michael Olcomendy, was gazetted for conservation on 25 November 2005.

Father Odo Tiggeloven, one of the church’s two founding priests, signing the baptism register in the Damien Hall.

Stepping inside the church, the warmness of the visual greeting provided by the soft light filtering through that casts a warm glow over the wood flavoured interior seems to also extend a spiritual welcome. I realised then that it had been a long while since I visited the church – not since I shifted away as a child of three and a half. As I looked around me, it was nice to see that the church is one that has stayed very much the same as it had been at its beginnings close to half a century ago. In that, it is also nice to know that in a world in which we have been quick to forget the past, there is a place that I can come to where the past hasn’t been forgotten.

Soft light filters through into the interior of the church.

One more view of the inside of the church.





75 feet above the harbour

30 03 2012

From a vantage point 75 feet (about 23 metres) over Singapore’s former harbour, officers with the Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (which later became Singapore Customs), stood watch over the Inner Roads of the harbour for more than three decades. The vantage point, a panoramic lookout tower that we still today, was part of the Customs Harbour Branch Building built over an L-shaped pier along the waterfront at the end of Collyer Quay. The building and pier, built at a cost of S$1.8 million, was completed in October 1969. The complex housed the 300 strong force of the then Harbour Division, as well as provided berths and maintenance facilities (which included a slipway) for some 35 launches and speedboats of the Division when it first opened. The building also provided cargo examination facilities and its construction allowed the Division to move from its somewhat makeshift premises in a godown in Telok Ayer Basin.

What is today a posh dining destination, Customs House, with its very distinct 75 foot lookout tower, was formerly the Customs Harbour Branch Building. It was completed in October 1969 and housed the Harbour Division of the Customs Preventive Branch.

The Customs Harbour Branch Building in 2006 (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

Collyer Quay in July 1974 seen beyond the Detached Mole, a breakwater that sheltered the Inner Roads from the opened Outer Roads. The Customs Harbour Branch Building and its distinct 75 foot tower is seen on the extreme left of the photograph (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

While 75 feet in the context of what now surrounds the former Customs complex, the tower allowed customs officers to keep a round-the-clock watch over the harbour for small boats attempting to sneak dutiable goods into Singapore. The octagonal shaped and fully air-conditioned watch tower which is supported by a cylindrical base provided a panoramic view which extended beyond the Inner Roads to the mouth of the Singapore River, the Geylang River and Tanjong Rhu. Officers spotting a suspicious boat could then alert their colleagues manning the speedboats which were on standby by the pier who would then head out to intercept the suspicious boat.

A side elevation of the former Customs Harbour Branch Building with its very distinct lookout tower (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

At the bottom of the 75 feet climb up a spiral staircase to the lookout tower - reminiscent of climbs up several lighthouses I've visited.

In between heavy panting, I managed to appreciate the view halfway up.

At the end of the 75 feet climb - a view of the lookout tower's ceiling.

Looking down at the cause of my heavy breathing.

Use for the building and the pier in its intended role ended with the construction of the Marina Barrage which cut what were the Inner Roads of the old harbour off from the sea and the building then under the Maritime and Port Authority’s charge was passed over to the Singapore Land Authority in 2006. Customs House was given conservation status in 2007 and was reopened as a dining destination under the management of Fullerton Heritage, which also manages the former Clifford Pier and the Fullerton Hotel. The tower itself is however disused and remains inaccessible to the general public.

At the top of the lookout tower.

The lookout tower no longer commands a view of a harbour littered with bumboats, twakows and tongkangs, but of the new world that is Marina Bay.

Show me the money! An interpretation perhaps of the new view - as seen in the reflection of a window of the lookout tower offered by one of the installations for i Light Marina Bay 2012 - Teddy Lo's MEGAPOV.

Seeing double - BIBI's Bibigloo and a reflection of it as viewed from the lookout tower.