The Jacksons of Sembawang

30 07 2019

Sembawang is one of just a few places in Singapore in which still holds the charm of a bygone era. The modern world, dominated by the sea of concrete is however, knocking increasing at its door; its latest convert being the the wonderful settings that lent context to (old) Admiralty House. The National Monument, built as the home of Commander of the huge British naval base in 1940, has seen the isolation it was provided with taken away in the effort to provide residents in the area with a sports and community hub. Similarly threatened with modernisation is the area by the coast just east of Sembawang Park and once an area of idyllic seaside villages where the villages of the new world have started to take root. One project that quite thankfully bucks the trend is the recently announced dementia-care village at Gibraltar Crescent. Currently the subject of a URA tender exercise, the village will make use of existing structures inherited from the days of the naval base and (hopefully) preserve some of the environment that the structures now find themselves in – at least for a 30-year period following the award of the tender.

A window into the past.

A quiet area of seemingly typical colonial residences,  a closer examination of the buildings of Gibraltar Crescent will reveal that they are actually quite unique even if they bear quite a fair bit of resemblance to and have many of the features of the residences that have come to be described as “black and white houses”. With the exception of a building that served as the former Dockyard Theatre or the “Japanese Theatre”, the longer than typical structures are raised on concrete columns of a height sufficient to permit a person to walk comfortably underneath the floorboards. Wood is also the main material on the buildings and masonry seems to have been used quite sparingly and used, besides in the supporting columns, in wet areas and in the ground level service structures. Quite interesting because of the wood featured in the buildings’ exterior walls, the structures tended to look more black than white in the days of the naval base as black bituminous paints that weatherproofed the wood.

A view towards the former Dockyard Theatre – a uniquely built structure along Gibraltar Crescent. It is the only large building along the street that is not raised on columns.

There are quite good reasons for the features adopted in the buildings, which were among the first to be erected by the contractor for the naval base, Sir John Jackson & Co, for the purposes of housing its European staff. Known as The “Jacksons” for this reason, they were completed in mid-1929. Features found in other “black and whites”, such as the raised supports, generous verandahs and openings, pitched roofs and wooden floorboards, kept the interiors cool, airy and bright. Although now among the oldest “permanent” residences in the former naval base, as well as being the first to have been purpose built, the buildings were intended as quasi-permanent residences and hence the extensive use of wood.

The Jacksons are raised on concrete supports and feature wooden walls except in the service areas and wet spaces.

Two “Jacksons” under construction in April 1929 (online at National Archives of Singapore).

It is also interesting to note how the various residences, while similar in appearance, have been laid out in what seems to be two distinct arrangements. One type seems to have had more of a layout with more common spaces and was perhaps used to house the lower ranking staff. This design has a centrally arranged service area and besides the access staircases at the back has two arranged at each end in the buildings’ front. The other design seems to have been subdivided into individual units, each with a service area and with what appears to have been an access staircase at both the front and the back.

A unit with a layout that lends itself to a more dorm-like use.

A Jackson which would have been subdivided into three individual units – each with its own service area.

Reports relating to the construction of the base, point to it being one of the largest engineering projects in the world at the time. The contractor employed a daily average of 3,000 coolies and had at least 30 European staff at any one point supervising through the 8 year period (from 1928 to 1936) over which the main contract was executed. The reports point to some 23 residences were built for European staff, along with numerous coolie lines. The residences were eventually handed over the the Admiralty and several among the 23 survived including the structures that are now the subject of the tender survived the war.

The front of one of the Jacksons with projections that would have served as staircase landings.

An exception may have been the Dockyard Theatre, the site of which, based on older maps seems to have been occupied by another of the “Jacksons”. Thought to have been constructed during the occupation – hence the references to it as the “Japanese Theatre” – the multi-use hall is built on a ground-level platform of concrete and is also built primarily of wood. The theatre was used as a to hold live performances including pantomimes and performances by the Naval Base Singers, as well as serving as a hall in which badminton was played in the period after the war until the British pull-out in 1971.

One of two access staircases at the rear in the first type of residence.

The verandah of the second type with privacy screens at what would have been the boundaries of the individual units.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences. 


News related to the tender for the dementia care village:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A sneak peek at Maxwell Chambers Suites

24 07 2019

I had the opportunity to pay the soon to be opened Maxwell Chambers Suites a visit, thanks to a Ministry of Law (MinLaw) organised guided visit. I must say that the former Traffic Police Headquarters turned design museum looks resplendent in its transformation, having morphed over a period of two-years into an extension of Maxwell Chambers. Maxwell Chambers is the world’s first integrated dispute resolution complex right next door that is housed in the former Customs House. The extension, which is set to open on 8 August, will help cement Singapore’s position as a hub for international dispute resolution.

Windows from the past with reflections of the future – at the former Traffic Police HQ turned dispute resolution complex.

The conserved building has, both literally and metaphorically, had quite a colourful past. Completed early in 1930 as the Police “D” Division headquarters and barracks, a corner of it was used to house the Traffic Branch. The new Division HQ cum barrack block had been built during the decade-long effort to modernise and bring greater professionalism to the Straits Settlements Police Force. The effort, the brainchild of the force’s Inspector General, Harold Fairburn, came in days when “Sin-galore” might have seemed as appropriate a name for the municipality as Singapore. The force was reorganised, expanded and better trained – with the construction of the new Police Training School (old Police Academy). New and modern facilities were also built, including police stations and barracks to house the expanded police force.

The gorgeously decorated Business Centre at Maxwell Chambers Suites.

The re-organisation also saw the Traffic Branch (as the Traffic Police in its infancy was known as) move from Central Police Station to the new station and barrack building at Maxwell Road. The Traffic Branch, and later the Traffic Police, would maintain an almost unbroken association with the building until 1999. That was when the Traffic Police made a move to it current home at Ubi Ave 3.

Standing tall – the former traffic police headquarters seen in new light against the backdrop of Singapore’s tallest building.

The dreaded driving test would be on the minds of many of the older folks when the Traffic Police HQ is mentioned. The process of obtaining a driving licence here, required the prospective driver to pay Maxwell Road a visit or two. This arrangement lasted until December 1968, after the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) took over the conduct of driving tests and built a second test centre in Queenstown. Tests continued to the conducted at Maxwell Road until May 1978.  

The rear façade of the building where the communal barrack kitchens were arranged on the upper floors and next to which was the compound where the “test circuit” was set up.

The version of the building that is probably etched in the minds of most would be the incarnation that had many of us see red – as the “red dot Traffic Building” and the home of the Red Dot Design Museum. The museum open in 2005 and was housed in the building until it was acquired by MinLaw in 2017.

As the Red Dot Traffic Building, which housed the Red Dot Design Museum from 2005 to 2017.

Interestingly, it does seem that it wasn’t just as the Red Dot that the building may have attracted attention due to its colour scheme. The building’s conservation architect, Mr. Ho Weng Hin, in sharing about how the current colour scheme was selected also revealed that its initial coat was a mustard-like yellow with green accents. This may have been in keeping with the Art Deco influences of the day. The colours have certainly mellowed over the years and it is in keeping with the colour schemes of its latter years as a police building that its current colour scheme was selected.

Maxwell Chambers Suites has had its colour restored to reflect the colour scheme of the late 20th century Traffic Police Building.

As with several other urban street-side police barrack buildings of the era, Maxwell Chambers Suites’ façade displays an orderly array of wooden framed windows. These, along with the original cast iron gutters also on its face, have been painstakingly restored. A discovery that was made during the restoration pointed to the origin of the gutters, which was a well-established Glaswegian foundry named Walter MacFarlane and Co. With its openings now sealed with glass, the restored wooden windows have been left in an “opened” position. It will be interesting to note how air-conditioning intake vents have been quite creatively placed in the upper (top- opening) sections of the wooden windows – arranged to give the impression that some of the upper window sections have been opened quite randomly.

Vents are arranged to give an impression that the top opening sections of the exterior windows have been opened in a random manner.

Inside the building, offices, meeting rooms and an beautifully decorated business centre – for the use of visiting legal practitioners – now occupy spaces that had originally been the homes of policemen and their families or service spaces such as communal kitchens. These are laid out around an internal courtyard that had also been restored. Part of the courtyard was closed for use by the museum proper during the buildings Red Dot days. Courtyards are a feature of many of the civic buildings of the era and were used to maximise light and ventilation. In the case  urban police barrack buildings, they also provide privacy to the living spaces from the public streets.

The courtyard.

The opening of Maxwell Chambers Suites is timed to coincide with the Singapore Convention Week (3 – 9 August), the week when Singapore will witness the signing of the Singapore Convention on Mediation – the first United Nations treaty to be named after Singapore on 7 August. The Convention will provide for the cross-border enforcement of mediated settlement agreements and will give businesses greater certainty that mediated settlement agreements can be relied upon to resolve cross-border commercial disputes. More on Maxwell Chamber Suites can be found at this link.

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Once barrack rooms.

A mural depicting the memories of a traffic policeman – of floods when the Singapore River spilled over.

Mr Ho Weng Hin pointing out the MacFarlane trademark on the cast iron gutter.

The Walter MacFarlane trademark.

A cornice-like feature – once part of an opened roof deck at the building’s rear and now part of an enclosed space.

A meeting room on an upper floor with a reflection of the office spaces across the courtyard.

An upward view from the courtyard.

Restored windows in the bulding’s rear seen in a new light.

Another look at the building’s front.

 

What would once have been communal kitchens in the building’s rear – with prefab plaster canopy hoods.


Inside Maxwell Chambers (the Former Customs House)

The iconic Cavenagh Room under the dome of Maxwell Chambers (the former Customs House). Maxwell Chambers Suites has been linked to Maxwell Chambers by a link bridge.

Stairway to heaven.


Maxwell Chambers Suites in its time as the Red Dot Traffic Building

Linda Black’s depiction of Venus – at Chairity, an event held at the Red Dot Design Museum in 2012 that was graced by the late Mr. S. R. Nathan in his capacity  as the President of Singapore.

 






Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

In a Singapore now overrun by the clutter of the modernised world, there is nothing that better celebrates the Singapore we have long abandoned better than the “Black and White” houses we still see scattered across the island. Characterised by their whitewashed and black trimmed exteriors and set in lush green surroundings, the houses – built in the early decades of the twentieth century to house the colony’s administrators, carry themselves with a poise and elegance that is sadly lacking in the architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to have a look into one of these houses, a good number of which are today leased out for quite a tidy sum by the Singapore government. One that I recently got to see – thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann and with the kind permission of the house’s occupant, was at 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house – of single room depth and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house at #159 is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the north facing slope of Mount Pleasant to serve as residences for the fast developing municipality’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the burial grounds to its northwest at the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and its expansive grounds. I was to learn from James that what was most interesting about the house was however neither its architecture nor the beauty of its setting but a secret it held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who was photographing the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about #159 and about some of the houses in the vicinity from piecing together evidence found in history books, maps and also what had quite recently been uncovered on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish what did go on in and around Adam Park in the dark days of the first half of February 1942 from archaeological evidence.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what does seem to have taken place on the morning of 15th February 1942, the day of the surrender, in a video that relates to a dig carried out at #159 early this year. Meeting with stiff resistance from the Cambridgeshire regiment who held the ground for three days at Adam Park, the Japanese forces move slightly to the north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese break through positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. The Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mixed of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, have the area fortified for a Japanese attack, with the “Black and White” houses there serving as defensive positions.

Cooper tells us also of two well documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, based on interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account Cooper refers to speaks of attempts on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. Following two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with 12 anti-tank shells fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops, and eventually burns down. Evidence provided by 1948 aerial photographs point to the house being one with a new roof at #160. This lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from #159 and seems also to be confirmed by a Singapore Free Press article of 25 June 1948 reporting the discovery of the remains of 8 soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

The far end of #159’s garden, was also where one set of remains was located, that of a British officer. Although the remains were subsequently moved to Kranji, one of the aims of the dig at #159 was to find evidence of the that may have possibly been left behind.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no evidence of that was found, the main focus of the dig, which took place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. With some of what had lay buried in this area having been exposed following the removal of a tree and the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater, the dig there managed to uncover thousands of pieces of ammunition. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ones that had deliberately been buried, confirms that there had been fighting in the garden of #159, which would have been used as a staging point for the attack on #160. The large quantity of unused ammunition of British origin, provided evidence of the final positions of British troops as they made their preparations prior to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There is probably a lot more that currently lies buried on the grounds of #159 and the other “Black and White” houses in the vicinity. It may be that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on what’s seen in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, it does seem that the area will be the subject of future redevelopment, perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate on the evidence of the two MRT stations in the vicinity. It would be a shame if and when this happens as not only will we lose a green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will lose a link to a chapter in our history that must never be forgotten.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.


More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road

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