23 May 2011

National Art Gallery Open House

The former City Hall and former Supreme Court, gazetted as national monuments in February 1992. Both grand looking buildings sit along St. Andrew's Road in front of the Padang.

Prior to the construction of these buildings, the land was the site of Grand Hotel de L’Europe. And before that, private residences which had unrestricted view of the open seas. It was said that this site was also where white sandy beaches of early Singapore (Temasek, before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles) once were.

Grand Hotel de L’Europe

One must be wondering, were the numerous parliament screenings on television, held in the two iconic buildings Supreme Court and City Hall? Unknown to most, these parliament meetings were held in the earlier Parliament House (Old Parliament House) till 1999, and from then on known as the Arts House. This building is still around today and is located just across the road near the former Supreme Court building.

A sampling of a parliament meeting, note the interior of the hall

The famed parliament seating area in recent times

Front facade of the Old Parliament House

Back to the Supreme Court and the City Hall, apart from being the backdrop of the F1 night races and National Day parades over the years; they have seen much of Singapore's history - important events such as surrender of the Japanese Occupation forces at the end of World War Two and Singapore's independence, the venue where Mr Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister and the first Singapore cabinet were sworn in in 1959 on the occasion of full self-government and playing of the new national anthem and unveiling the nation's flag for the first time.

Brief history of City Hall
Brief history of Supreme Court

The former Supreme Court as seen on a undated post card

Spectators outside City Hall, witnesses to the surrender of Japanese occupation forces in Singapore

Trivia: "The imposing Corinthian and Ionic columns, as well as the tympanum sculpture fronting the Supreme Court Building, were the work of Cavalieri Rudolfo Nolli, a Milanese sculptor. The central figure in the tympanum is that of Justice, with a figure immediately to its left representing the lost soul begging for protection from it. Next to this figure are two legislators with books in hand, representing the law. To the right of Justice, a figure bows in gratitude, followed by a man with a bull, representing riches and prosperity. Two young children holding a sheaf of wheat represent abundance from law and justice."

Thankfully, the buildings were not slated to be demolished but to be converted into a new museum - National Art Gallery. Changes to the insides of the buildings are currently underway, and will be completed in about 4 years time from now, tentatively end of 2014.

Trivia: "Another point of interest for visitors is that the old Supreme Court building actually features two domes: the main copper-coloured dome which dominates Singapore's skyline, and a smaller dome which is hardly visible at street level, but which originally used to house a beautifully designed library."

Before the building was closed off for the long overhaul, an open house was organized to allow the public one last look at the iconic buildings before the transformation. We applaud this good move, not only was it boon for heritage/architecture enthusiasts, photographers but also an educational movement as well for the masses; many whom want to and yet to see the insides of these famous government buildings.

For those who had missed out on the open house, fret not as they have an online version of the big brochures they gave out during the open house - here.

Trivia: "The foundation stone of the Supreme Court building was laid by Sir Shenton Thomas on 1 April 1937, and was, at that time, the biggest foundation stone in the whole of Malaya. A "time capsule" containing six Singapore newspapers dated 31 March 1937, as well as a handful of Straits Settlements coins, was buried beneath the foundation stone. The time capsule is slated to be retrieved in the year 3000."

Below we would like to share with you some of the sights seen during the open house tour.

Former City Hall

The guided tours were wildly popular, and the volunteers and staff had a hard time handling the excessive hunger of heritage tours in buildings previously not free accessible to the general public.

There were constant reminders everywhere, meant for the people who used to work here.

Even if it was bright and sunny, there were certain corridors which were much shielded from daylight.

A much familiar logo from the past

Old stickers for safety inspections

There were curious marks on the walls in this particular stairwell, the markings seem to indicate that the door was previously locked/barred from within, in an attempt to prevent access from the corridor area? Would anyone know why? Email us!

The stairs were fairly interesting with old railings of past designs.

Tour participants satisfying their curiousity of where the stairs led to.

Corridors facing each other, all look similar. Bottom is the interior courtyard

The main stairway was definitely looking more ornamental than the hidden ones.

The former Law Restuarant/lounge area for lawyers and judges, I wonder what friendly banter goes on here at this 'speakeasy'.

The City Hall Chambers/hall where the official surrender of Japanese Occupation Forces took place, as well as where the first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the first cabinet of Singapore were sworn in. This area shown in the above photo was shrouded in darkness, as they were showing video clips..

The monumental steps outside the former City Hall, where countless bridal couples and graduating university students gather to have their photos taken at.

Inscription on a door, anyone care to guess or share what it means?

Former Supreme Court

This building looks much more interesting from the outside with it's characteristic dome, and it's no surprise that the insides are just as interesting as well.

An old blueprint seen displayed for the general public, depicting the inner structure of the former Supreme Court. Note there's two domes.

The first location of the tour allowed us to view the much anticipated "Jail cells" or holding cells. This little cosy office belongs to the strict armed guards that made sure there's no 'funny business'.

Short passageway that leads to the holding cells for females, strangely we were not allowed to view them (which were only two cells). Nevertheless, we got to view the male holding cells.

The "Interview Room"

Eager open house participants crowd around to view the cells, we were allowed to enter them as well. Some posed for "jail-bird" photos, others wondered how it felt like sitting in the cell.

Free access to the row of holding cells except the last two. And we wonder why.

Minimal ammenities, were really minimal. As occupants weren't supposed to spend long hours in them, as they were only to be held while waiting for their turn to have their court hearings.

We could imagine the convicted spent time staring at the blank walls or the steel grilled ceilings.

There were questions among the participants if there were any suicide cases inside these cells. Expecting no definite or concrete answers, afterall the group tour guides were only volunteers. Unexpectedly upon our exit of the holding cells area, one of the older guides accompanying the group mentioned in hushed, wizened manner - that there was indeed a suicide case, but it happened in one of the female cell; hence we weren't allowed to visit it.

We can now all imagine the really big question that will pop up on most paranormal-enamoured Singaporeans's mind, after hearing the above information. We will leave that to readers's discretion.

Toilet flushes were on the outside of the cells, it's assumed the guards on duty would do the flushing when required.

A very secure looking flight of stairs leads to passageways that in turn leads to the different courts for hearings. It gave the impression that the holding cells were situated underground.

The faulty lights in this corridor gave the impression of gloom. Looking at the spot where the paint on the wall peeled, we could imagine there were angry/sad/furious convicts who punched or barged against the wall as they made their way to the courts above.

The passageway ends in a flight of short steps to the courts, above depicted is the stairs leading to the Court of Appeal. Once again, we can imagine the why this stairs looked very weathered and heavily used. Perhaps the convicted tried to show their defiance or reluctance by digging into the stairs or trod heavily in the hope that the stairs would give way to cause a minor commotion for distraction.

Note the heavily worn carpeting.

Once the convicted are brought up to the courts, they are led to a small aisle to be seated.

A view of the court where the judges would be seating.

The larger court rooms were much elegantly adorned, with tall classy ceilings and light fixtures.

We were brought to the different rooms of the judges, including the Chief Justice's. Here we see his table, gazetted to be preserved.

We were shown the Rotunda Library, where this dome is lesser seen on the outside than it's bigger counterpart.

The Rotunda Library, also serves as the operational base where the police monitor daily going-ons in the former Supreme Court.

The halls and corridors of the former Supreme Court holds much potential for photography, but that have to wait. Open house participants were almost at every corner

Photographers young and old, coming from all walks of life, shot everything within view.

Beautiful window panes are a very rare sight, we hope they would be carefully preserved.

Numerous skylights along the corridors and halls of the building, provided sufficient daylight in the absence of artificial lighting.

The floorings were just as beautifully designed, unfortunately many rubber surfaced parts are slowly degrading and breaking up.

Broken up flooring would mean possible hazards - abestos. We must always be aware and take precautions whenever possible during our activities, abestos is dangerous if inhaled in extreme large amounts over long term, but we believe if there were any of such; it would be well taken care and disposed of during the upgrading. Last we heard, the surfacing will be replaced with similar looking but of safe material.

Ornate stairs leading down to the lobby area of the former Supreme Court

On the left is where the time capsule is buried and said only to be retrieved in the year 3000.

Security guards were posted at the only possible entrances of both the former Supreme Court and former City Hall buildings.

As much as we would have loved more time documenting both buildings with better composed photos at our own pace, but we understand that it was unfortunately not feasible during the open house.

Due to overwhelming response to the group tours and they were rushing to finish all the tours before their stipulated closing time of 5pm (self guided tours had only specific areas where one could visit, Eg. Visits to the holding cells area were only allowed for the group tours). We were urshered quickly from one area to another, and volunteers stationed at different parts of the building never fail to pop their heads to appear in photos where one would thought to have a clear shot of a corridor or room.

Eventually, it was a case of touch and go photography for us. There remains more to be shown, albeit in a more 'urbex' manner. Unknown to most, there were still many parts of both buildings not visible to the general public.

More photos can be viewed here

Preservation of Monuments Board on City Hall
Preservation of Monuments Board on Supreme Court
Former Supreme Court historical info on Infopedia
Former City Hall historical info on Infopedia
Former Grand Hotel de l’Europe historical info on Infopedia
Former Supreme Court historical info on Wikipedia
Former City Hall historical info on Wikipedia
Jerome Lim's childhood memories
Jerome Lim's experience at the open house

Article & Photos copyright of Andrew Him

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