Windows into the past: where Percival and a President once resided

11 05 2016

A rare opportunity to have a look inside the former Command House came over the weekend when it was opened to the public. Organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) as part of their Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest, the open house, unlike a previous visit I had previously arranged, allowed me the freedom to roam through the interior of the beautifully restored former residence, the last occupant of which would have been Mr. Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

A window into a rather interesting past.

A window into a rather interesting past.

Now in use as the UBS Business University, the house has had a colourful past that goes far back beyond its use by the Republic’s Head of State, much of which can be found in a previous post: The very grand house that Brewer built. Built in 1938 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it is one of the grander residences built by Singapore’s colonial masters. As a replacement for Flagstaff House, the official residence of the GOC, Malaya’s chief military officer, it was to see a string of top military commanders take up residence, the last leaving at the point of the British pullout in 1971. This was however not before the third GOC to be accommodated, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, put all delusions the British may had held of their invincibility to an abrupt end  in a conference room in Bukit Timah one February’s afternoon in 1942.

As Flagstaff House in 1957, when it housed the most senior British Military Commander in the Far East (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

The pullout, by which time the house had already taken on the name Command House, saw ownership pass on to the Government of Singapore. The house first became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Only one Speaker, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng,  would use it. Two of Dr Yeoh’s successors declined the use of the house before renovations to the Istana prompted its temporary use as the official residence of the President from 1996 to 1998.

The road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse on the road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse in 1957 (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

Much of what we see of the house today, would be from its days as the President’s residence. Even with the interventions made by its tenant since 2007, Swiss based financial services company, UBS, for use as a place of instruction, much of the grandeur and dignity the house must held had during the days of the President, is still very much in evidence.

A view from the second floor.

A view from the second floor.

The entrance hallway, which one steps into entering the house, is dominated by a grand staircase coloured by the earthy hues the wood of its wall and balustrade panels that are thought to have been added in during its time as the President’s house. The hallway opens up on either side to what would have been a verandah, typically seen in the many examples of colonial architecture adapted  for the hot and steamy tropics, that provide access, ventilation and insulation to the rooms found in each of the house’s two wings. Two large rooms dominate each wing and that would have been where the house’s dining and reception areas would have been arranged.

The grand staircase.

The grand staircase.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

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Another room in its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

The verandah in the wing.

The lower floor verandah in the east wing.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

On the right side of  the staircase, a door separates what is intended to be seen from the unseen – spaces used by hired help that is hidden on both levels at the back of the house. The spaces, connected between floors by a narrow staircase, would have had access to kitchens, larders, cleaning and maintenance stores and the servants quarters, housed in the annexes and in separate buildings at the back of the main building and on the terrace below.

The servant's staircase.

The servant’s staircase.

A view down the servant's staircase.

A view down the servant’s staircase.

A garage on the lower terrace.

A garage on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant's quarters on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant’s quarters on the lower terrace.

The back of the house - an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

The back of the house – an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

At the top of the grand staircase, the most beautifully furnished of the house’s spaces, a very homely looking lounge, comes into sight. Arranged in the space above the house’s porch,  three of the space’s furniture – a television cabinet and two chests, are thought to have survived from the days of the President. As with the hallway below, access to the rooms in each wing, is provided by a what would have been a verandah that is now enclosed by windows. The President’s private rooms, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a bedroom, as I understand it, were located in the east wing. The west wing on the other hand would have been where a guest room and a children’s bedroom would have been found.

The lounge area.

The lounge area.

A view out the front windows.

A view out the front windows.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A view down the grand staircase.

A view down the grand staircase.

The balcony outside the former President's bedroom.

The balcony outside the former President’s bedroom.

The verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been a verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been the President's bedroom.

What would have been the President’s bedroom.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

The view through one of its original windows.

The view through one of its original windows.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

More exposed brickwork.

More exposed brickwork.

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Besides the former Command House open house, the will be open houses at two more venues that SLA is holding this month. One is the regular public holiday open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Vesak Day. The second will be at old Kallang Airport on Sunday (15 October 2016) from 10 am to 1 pm. The open houses and the Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest (details here) are being held to create awareness and appreciation of State Buildings. Details on how to register for the Old Kallang Ariport open house can be found in this post on SLA’s Facebook Page. More information on the contest and State Buildings can also be found in this post: Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA.

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The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





Lost in the rising sea at Telok Ayer

12 02 2016

It is hard now to imagine the sea coming right up to Telok Ayer Street where the original shoreline had once been.  The Telok Ayer Reclamation scheme of the 1880s moved the shoreline to where Shenton Way is today, adding some 1,808,028 square feet or 167,971. square metres of land where Telok Ayer Bay had been. A portion of the land, reclaimed at a cost of 51 cents per square foot, was sold initially (in 1896) for an average price of $1.13 per square foot.

One of the earliest structures to be erected in the land where the bay had been is what we now know as Telok Ayer Market or “Lau Pa-Sat” – meaning old market in the Hokkien dialect with pa-sat being a Hokkien loan word from Malay used locally. The “New Town Market” replaced a 1833 market that had been built along the earlier shoreline and would possibly be the only one of the reclamation’s early structures to have stood to this very day (it did disappear over a three year period in the late 1980s when it was dismantled to protect its structure from damage from tunnelling works for the MRT).

A National Monument, the former market and now a food centre, is a showpiece of exquisite Scottish ironwork. Although it still remains very recognisable for its distinctive octagonal plan and its clock tower, the old market has become a lot less noticeable now that it is lost in the new sea at the former Telok Ayer Bay; a sea not of water but of towering skyscrapers that has risen in the last four decades or so.

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Lost in the sea of skyscrapers, the former Telok Ayer Market. This view of it is down Maxwell Link, running in between Robinson Road and Shenton Way, along which newer and taller buildings are now replacing the first generation skyscrapers of 1970s vintage.

The view from Mount Wallich

When the air was much clearer – a view from Mount Wallich, which was soon to be levelled, towards the Telok Ayer Reclamation, possibly in the late 1890s, soon after the “New Town Market”, also seen in the picture, was constructed. The road closest to the viewer would be Cecil Street, with Robinson Road running parallel and what would became Shenton Way just by the sea.

Carnival time on the reclamation – the Manila Carnival during the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition in 1922 where Shenton Way is today. The market can be seen in the background (National Archives of Singapore Photograph).

 





The Rail Corridor, what will be

10 11 2015

The header of a graphic produced by the Straits Times related to the winning concept master plan for the Rail Corridor Request for Proposal reads “On track for big changes”.  It isn’t a big change however that many who came out in support of the idea to keep the Rail Corridor, much of which had been untouched by development during the days of the railway, as a continuous and undeveloped green space, were hoping to see.

A new journey along the rail corridor.

A new journey along the rail and hopefully still green corridor.

A panel at the exhibition.

A panel at the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition.

The long anticipated announcement of the winning entries for the RFP to develop a concept master plan and concept proposals for the entire 24 km stretch and two special interest areas, launched in March of this year, was made at yesterday’s opening of the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition at the URA Centre, by Minister for National Development, Mr Lawrence Wong.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Among the five design teams shortlisted for Stage 2A, awards were made to two teams. One was made to the team led by Japanese architecture firm Nikken Sekkei Ltd and local landscape firm Tierra Design for the concept master plan and concept proposal for the entire stretch. Another two – for the concept designs of two special interest areas, namely the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for 20 years and the integrated blue-green public housing development at Choa Chu Kang, was awarded to the team from MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

The strength of Nikken Sekkei’s concept master plan and proposals, Lines of Life, seems not so much about big changes but interventions that many will argue is necessary to enhance the user experience and allow what really should be a community space to reach out to a wider group of users, many of whom will be from the estimated one million who live, work and go to school in the immediate vicinity of the disused rail corridor.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei's proposals.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei’s proposals.

What seems to be a plus point for the winning proposal is that it is built around core values of Space, Nature, Time and People. This with the aim to enhance the value of the space, build on its natural environment, remember the journey of the space through time and connect the various communities who will potentially use the space. The team sees nature being enhanced through four landscape strategies: a Grassland, a Rainforest, a Garden / Urban Park and a Wetland. Platforms – with a variety of amenities provided based on one of the four modular platform sizes are suggested to serve as much needed rest and comfort stops along the 24 km route.

An example of one of 21 modular platforms that perhaps resemble railway platforms to serve as a reminder of the corridor’s history.

Part of Nikken Sekkei's proposal.

One of the activity nodes of Nikken Sekkei’s proposal.

The team also suggests enhancing the flavour of what it sees as eight stretches with unique characters along the 24 km corridor, something that will allow a much more varied experience of the corridor that does following the departure of the railway, have the effect of leaving one with a feeling that it is more of the same.  Along with the themes, ten activity nodes are proposed. From the graphics on display, it does seem that large scale interventions are being proposed in and around the nodes. While this doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the hope some harbour for an undisturbed, natural and easy to maintain green corridor, it does have the desired effect of enhance the value of the space to the wider community.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

One of the activity nodes proposed – The Community Cave under the PIE viaduct at Mayfair Park, includes a rock climbing wall that can be repurposed in the future.

The Cultural Valley at Buona Vista with the intention to cater to the working community at One North and the residential community at Queenstown.

A look out tower over the lush landscape at Bukit Timah Fire Station – The Green Connection, seems as a hub for eco-based activities.

The Station Garden at Bukit Timah Railway Station, which leverages on its idyllic setting. Amenities such a bicycle station and a cafe are envisaged for this node.

Plus points of the winning concept also include the introduction of much needed 122 access points along the corridor. The history and heritage of the corridor, sadly already minimised by the removal of much of the railway’s paraphernalia, will not be forgotten through adaptive reuse of former railway buildings and the restoration of its existing artefacts and structures. On this note, the railway line’s two very distinctive and iconic truss bridges will be gazetted for conservation – Minister for National Development Mr Lawrence Wong also announced yesterday that the process to have the bridges conserved has commenced. The bridges, constructed for the 1932 Railway Deviation that turned the trains to the new terminal at Tanjong Pagar, elevated the railway and minimised the number of railway level crossings, have long been a feature of the Bukit Timah area and has given the area much of its character.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone - one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone – one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

Besides the concept master plan and concept proposals for the 24 km corridor, visitors to the exhibition will also get to have a look at MKPL’s and Turenscape’s ideas for the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Choa Chu Kang development. The proposal for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees it re-purposed into a multi-functional community use building for an interim 20 year period before future plans can be made in relation to the intended Greater Southern Waterfront development that will take place after the lease expires at the port in 2027.

MKPL's and Turenscape's vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

MKPL’s and Turenscape’s vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

What is proposed will see art clubs, a railway gallery, exhibition space, auditorium, cafés and modular pop-up community kiosks placed along the platforms with a landscaped are in front of of the former station. Also proposed is the integration of the Circle Line’s Cantonment Station, which will be built under the platforms, with the former railway station (see also: Closing the Circle). The proposals – done up when it was thought that the portion of the platforms to be removed to allow the MRT station to be constructed had to be demolished – sees a new interpretation of the removed platform constructed and also the station exits opening up to the area where the tracks were. We do know from the joint SLA/LTA 29 October announcement that ways to reinstate the removed portions of the platforms are being looked into. What would certainly be good to also see is that the perspective provided along the platforms – among the longest along the Malayan Railway’s line to accommodate the longest mail trains and a testament to the importance of the former station, is not altered by the suggested interventions.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway's lines - a testament to the station's importance.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines – a testament to the station’s importance.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape's winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape’s winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

More information on the winning proposals can be found at the URA’s Rail Corridor RFP website. The proposals can also be viewed at the exhibition, which is being held at the URA Centre Atrium and runs from 9 to 28 November 2015. The master plan and design concepts, which have already incorporated many ideas from the consultation process, are not finalised proposals and there will be scope to have them be refined based on further feedback from stakeholders and the general public. This can be provided at the exhibition where one can provide feedback on forms in one of the four official languages, or online http://ura.sg/railrfp.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

The exhibitions will also be brought to neighbourhoods along the corridor in the first quarter of 2016, during which time feedback may also be provided, following which Stage 2B and 2C of the RFP exercise will be held, starting in the second quarter of 2016. The awarded teams will work with URA to refine the ConceptMaster Plan and Concept Proposals, taking into account the feedback received during stage 2B. A preliminary design and feasibility study for a selected four kilometre-long signature stretch of the Rail Corridor, covering the area from Bukit Timah Railway Station to Hillview Road area, will also be carried out by Nikken Sekkei in Stage 2C. This will be followed by a public exhibition of the proposals scheduled in June 2016.


Around the exhibition

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Closing the Circle

29 10 2015

One of the things the announcement identifying the sites of the Circle Line Stage 6 stations that will not go unnoticed is that parts of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s platforms will have to be removed for the construction of Cantonment Station. This may come as a surprise to many as the former station, at which operations ceased on 30 June 2011, was gazetted as a National Monument in April of that same year. Currently unoccupied, it is the subject of a concept plan being developed under the Rail Corridor RFP, part of which seeks to identify a use in the interim prior to the development of the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The platforms of the former railway station are historically significant. They are amongst the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines, having been dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains. The platforms however, at least for the stretch that will be affected and based on the April 2011 gazette that accords the former railway station with National Monument status, have not been protected as part of the monument.

An extract of the May 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station designated as a National Monument.

An extract of the Apr 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station protected as a National Monument.

The end of the former station's platforms seen after its closure.

The end of the former station’s platforms seen after its closure.

Considerations made in selecting the site of Cantonment Station (its working name) include the need to protect the National Monument from damage as well as the presence of existing structures in the vicinity such as the Keppel Viaduct to the immediate south and HDB flats to the immediate north. Construction would involve tunneling work deep under the former railway station and the excavation of part of the area where the platforms are to construct the station.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The excavation work in way of the future MRT station will see sections of the platforms removed. It does seem that the intention is to dismantle the parts of the affected parts of the platforms, which were built in a modular manner, and restore and reinstate them once construction is complete. Other options that are being been considered include demolishing the platforms altogether and either reconstructing them in the same style or in a style that is in keeping with the former station’s intended use.

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Work is scheduled to commence in 2017. As this will only be completed in 2025, it does mean that we will not get to see the platforms on which many memories have been made, for close to a decade.

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Thinking about it, it does perhaps make perfect sense to have the new MRT station integrated into the former railway station, whatever its intended reuse in the future. While this may deviate from what had been intended in building the grand old dame, modelled some say after Helsinki Central to serve as the gateway to the oceans, it would be in keeping with its intended use as a transportation hub and serve as a fitting reminder of what once was.

Further information on Circle Line 6 can be found in the joint LTA / SLA Press Release found here.


More of the platforms in forgotten times

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Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

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There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

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More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

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An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen

28 05 2015

From its position some 90 feet above what once was the southern fringes of the His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, the grand and architecturally rather interesting building we know today as the Old Admiralty House would have offered its occupants with a wonderful vantage point over the area’s rolling landscape.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Its lofty position, and the scale of the house – likened by some to that of an English manor, tells us of the rank and status of the mansion’s intended occupant, the Royal Navy’s officer in command of the huge naval base. The house, would have been one of a trio of large residences planned for at the end of the 1930s.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The three were to house the each of the three commanding officers of the armed services, with what was to be Admiralty House built so as to permit the Officer in charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, a appointment held by the Commodore (later Rear Admiral), Malaya, to be moved on to the grounds of the base. The Commodore’s residence, had been at the then Navy House, located a long drive away in ‘Singapore’ at Woodstock Drive (which became the Grange Road end of today’s Orchard Boulevard).

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders' aides.

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders’ aides.

The porch.

The porch.

The two other residences intended, were to be at Kheam Hock Road and in Tanglin. The one at Kheam Hock Road, was to be a replacement for Flagstaff House, the residence of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya. This residence is the one we know today as Command House, a National Monument. The Tanglin residence, which I have not been able to find further information on, was intended to be the home of the Royal Air Force’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Far East.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at Kheam Hock Road.

As with the new Flagstaff House, the design of Admiralty House was very much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. It is widely attributed to the illustrious architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose work left a mark not just in Britain, but also in New Delhi. However, there little evidence of this.

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Thought to have been completed in 1940, two years after the opening of the massive King George VI graving dock – an event that marked the completion of Great Britain’s most important naval station east of the Suez – the house first occupants would have been Rear Admiral and Mrs. Thomas Bernard Drew, if they had not elected to stay on at Woodstock Drive. Rear Admiral Drew, who was posted to Singapore in February 1939 as a Commodore, Malaya, was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in August of the same year.

1945 Map Detail

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.

It was to be Rear Admiral Drew’s successor as Rear Admiral, Malaya, Ernest John “Jack” Spooner and his wife Megan, who were to be Admiralty House’s first residents, moving into the house in August 1941. Mrs Megan Spooner, née Foster, interestingly had been a renowned soprano back in Britain.

Nelson Gate

Nelson Gate at the bottom of Nelson Road at the perimeter fence of the Naval Base along Sembawang Road (photograph used with the kind permission of Mr Chan Kai Foo).

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We are able to get a feel of how the house was laid out and decorated in Ms. Mary Heathcott’s article published in the 18 October 1941 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. Here, Ms Heathcott refers to the house as ‘Navy House’, but it quite certainly is a description of the Naval Base’s Admiralty House (Mrs. Megan Spooner also referred to the house as ‘Navy House’ in her diary entries):

Navy House has been built for about a year, was never occupied by the Drews as they were settled in Singapore.

It is large, pillared, cream coloured and grand and when Mrs. Spooner has finished her interior decoration should be a very elegant home indeed for Malaya’s Rear Admiral.

The dining room is furnished already, with solid walnut-polished teak furniture, sober jade green leather chairs. It has an immensely long dining table for big dinners, a small round one for less formal affairs.

A long, many windowed drawing room leads off the dining room, and this Mrs Spooner plans in Empire style, with the delicate graceful studied furniture of the period, mirrors on the walls, console tables, pastel colourings. Off this is a smaller sitting room, informal and restful.

Three hundred and fifty people were recently entertained at a cocktail party in the dining and drawing room of the house and there was no crush at all, which gives you some idea of their pleasant spaciousness.

Upstairs are the private quarters of the Spooners, a big landing sitting room where Mrs. Spooner has her desk, with its photographs of their nine-year old son, now at school in England. Here too, will be a corner settee to offset the rather difficult angles.

For most rooms of the house, there is a pleasant green vista, and from one side can be seen the Straits of Johore through a cutting in the trees.

The garden is as yet a plain green lawn, but there are plans for that too.

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A balcony the private quarters open into.

A balcony the private quarters open into.

What would have been the private quarters.

What would have been the private quarters.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott's description.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott’s description.

The drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

The ‘large, many windowed’ drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

That it was referred to as ‘Navy House’, points to the fact that the house probably did not have an official name at its completion. There are also several references to it as ‘Admiral House’ and ‘Admiralty House’ from accounts of its early years.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

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Geoffrey Till, in his book “Understanding Victory: Naval Operations from Trafalgar to the Falklands”, makes mention of the stay of Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, Commander-in-Chief of the hastily put together Eastern Fleet, in late 1941, at “the new, rambling, vaguely “Arts and Crafts” Admiralty House in Sembawang, Singapore”, identifying Phillips’ hostess as Mrs. Megan Spooner (Admiral Phillips stay at ‘Navy House’ is also mentioned in Mrs. Spooner’s diary).

A doorway on the upper level.

A doorway on the upper level.

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We also find in another book, “Course for Disaster: From Scapa Flow to the River Kwai”, the recollections of its author, Richard Pool, of his meetings with Mrs. Spooner as a naval officer. One of these encounters was at “Admiralty House in Singapore” on the occasion of a cocktail party Admiral and Mrs. Spooner had hosted, “the day after (HMS) Repulse arrived at the Naval Base”. Pool was a naval officer serving on the ill fated HMS Repulse, and was to survive its sinking not long after that meeting.

The balcony the private quarters' opens into with the drawing room below.

The balcony the private quarters’ opens into with the drawing room below.

The front balcony.

The front balcony.

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Both the accounts are related to the events of December 1941, the month in which hostilities between the Britain and Japan rapidly escalated. Little did Admiral Spooner or his guest at Admiralty House, Admiral Phillips, know of it then, but fate was soon to deal each with a cruel blow. Phillips fate was sealed on board his flagship HMS Prince of Wales in the days that followed. Both the flagship, which Phillips went down with, and the HMS Repulse were sunk off Kuantan in the days that followed Britain’s declaration of war with Japan.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (hands on hips) watches his flagship HMS PRINCE OF WALES berth at Singapore on 4 Dec 1941 (source: Imperial War Museums ©IWM (A6787)).

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

Admiral Spooner, whose last days in Singapore was spent organising the evacuation of civilians, attempted an escape in a motor launch two days before Singaore was to fall. The launch was tracked and attached by the Japanese and having run aground on the island of Cebia (or Tjeba) near Pulau Bangka off Sumatra, Spooner was to spend his last days there, dying in April 1942. He was survived by Mrs. Spooner, who was evacuated on 10 February, and an eight year old son James, who had been left behind in Britain to attend school.

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It was only after the war, that the house was to provide the calm its seclusion was meant to give. There are suggestions that it was used as a residence of the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard, although I do have my doubts. What is known is that it became the residence of the Flag Officer, Malayan Area as ‘Nelson House’ from September 1948. The transfer of the British Far East Fleet Headquarters to Singapore required the Flag Officer to vacate the residence at 51 Grange Road so that it could then be used to house the Commander-in-Chief (C in C), Far East Station, as ‘Admiralty House’.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

This arrangement was to last until March 1958, when a reorganisation of British forces in the Far East meant that the Flag Officer’s appointment was assumed under the responsibility of the C in C. With this, ‘Nelson House’ became the official residence of the C in C and was renamed ‘Admiralty House’. The old ‘Admiralty House’ at Grange Road was later to be demolished, making way at the end of the 1960s for Raffles Institution’s new campus. It was in the days of ‘Admiralty House’, at least in the 1960s, that open houses were to be held annually. This allowed servicemen to visit the grounds for a swim in the pool and maybe have a picnic in the garden.

Old Admiralty House in Grange Road, which was demolished to make way for Raffles Institution at the end of the 1960s (online catalogue of the National Archives).

Naval Base Police Award

A member of the Naval Base Police receiving an award at Admiralty House (photograph used with the kind permission of Alfa Andy).

The pullout of British forces in 1971 and the closure of the naval base saw Admiralty House become the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force. It was during this time, in 1972, that Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had lunch at the house, as part of a visit to ANZUK forces in Singapore.  Admiralty House, also known as ANZUK House, as the official residence of the ANZUK forces commander,  was to accommodate only two commanders. The force was disbanded in 1975 following decisions by first the Australian, and then British governments’ to pull out of the arrangements. The last to leave was Air Vice-Marshal Richard Wakeford in early 1975, following which the keys to the house was passed to the Singapore government.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Much has happened since the house saw its last military officer. Newspaper reports in May 1976 point to it being rented by an undisclosed local company for S$4750 per month. It was turned into a restaurant and guest house that opened in 1978, which apparently was rather popular with an occupancy rate of 90%. In 1988, plans were announced to turn the building and its grounds into a country club with a caravan park. The application was not approved, and it was relaunched in mid 1989 as the Admiralty Country House. The house and its grounds did eventually play host to a country club as Yishun Country Club in 1991, and then from 2001 to 2006, as the Karimun Admiralty Country Club. It was during this time that the building was gazetted as a National Monument in 2002.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

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Over the years, and changes in use, the grounds of the building has seen several changes. One change is to Old Nelson Road, the roadway leading up to the house. That used to be Nelson Road (it was renamed in the 1970s, possibly to avoid confusing it with the Nelson Road in the Kampong Bahru area – since expunged), and a through road. The south end of the road was at Nelson Gate, which opened up to Sembawang Road. The road was truncated in the late 1970s when Sembawang Road was widened and the gate removed. There would also have been a helipad in the grounds at the building’s north, probably added in the 1950s.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

The grounds today also see more recently introduced structures such as an entrance gate, a pond, buildings around the swimming pools. Accommodation and classroom blocks were also added by the Furen International School (FIS), which since 2012 has run a boarding school for international students on the premises. As part of the arrangement for the lease of the building, FIS was required to repair and restore the building, which they have done so rather beautifully. This required a huge investment (in the order of a seven digit number) and replacement of fittings true to the original style employed in the building, where these had been previously removed.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

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Speaking of the swimming pools, one – the deeper pool, is said to have been built by 200 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) in 1945. There is another suggestion however, that it was the deepest swimming pool in Singapore and it was built by British POWs in the hope that their captors, who were accommodated in the house, drown during their morning swim!

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Another reminder of the war on the grounds is a bomb shelter located across the driveway of the building. This was rediscovered in 1990. The shelter is rather small and was perhaps built to accommodate the main occupants of the buildings. Light fittings can be found in the shelter as well as what remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Beautifully restored, the building, and its adjoining and auxiliary buildings are now ones we can and should marvel at. Much is in evidence of the Arts and Crafts influence, including the exposed brick seen on the house’s façade at the upper level and the “high-hipped roof” with overhanging eaves that is mentioned in the Preservation of Sites and Monuments write up on the monument. Also in evidence are the generously provided windows and ventilation openings – all designed to maximise comfort in the tropical heat and humidity.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

What is particularly interesting is how some of the service rooms are attached to the main building – these typically were detached. It appears that these were where the kitchens and other service rooms were from which access was provided via the back of the main house into the dining room and to the bedrooms upstairs through a narrow staircase. Also around the main house are smaller single storey detached buildings, thought to have accommodated the aides to the commanders.

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The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The house today remains as a reminder of what once was. Much of the area around it has seen a transformation. The vantage point it offers is no longer ones of green rolling hills but of the structures of a growing population on an island state that has benefited greatly from the huge naval establishment the occupants of the house presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

While the building itself is protected as a monument, what surrounds it is not. What the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan reveals is that the hill Admiralty House is perched on, or at least a large part of it, will be given to much needed sports and recreation facilities in an area where the pace of public residential developments is very quickly picking up. It may not be long before much of the green around it – the setting Admiralty House was meant to be given, is lost to grey. We do however, still have that opportunity to celebrate the house and the setting it is in, before that, like in the case of many others before it, is lost to us forever.

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