Tuesday 19 June 2012

Why Olson Building is special

By Kimberly Spykerman and Cheryl Faith Wee, The Straits Times, 17 Jun 2012

Unless there is a reprieve, when the wrecker's ball eventually descends on the buildings of the former Methodist Girls' School (MGS) campus in Mount Sophia, only one grand dame will be spared.

The 'old girl' - a two-storey structure that housed classrooms, a laboratory and an office - is the only one of the six campus buildings to be zoned for conservation in an announcement by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last August.

The remaining buildings consist of former classrooms, an auditorium and a school hall, and three wings.

Former students of the school are campaigning to have them earmarked for conservation too. They are in the middle of dialogue sessions with authorities.

All the buildings recently had a new lease of life as the Old School arts enclave. Five arts lovers leased the site in 2007 from the Singapore Land Authority and sub-leased it to tenants including art galleries, creative studios, artists' studios and an independent film outfit.

The lease runs out at the end of this month. The URA has zoned the 140,000 sq ft site for residential use. Only Olson was identified for conservation, specifically, eventual integration with the housing development.

But what is so special about the 84-year-old Olson building?

Certainly, Olson, named after one of the school's principals, Mary Olson, is special in being the oldest one in the school. Methodist Girls' School moved in 1992 to its current premises in Blackmore Drive.

In response to queries from SundayLife!, a URA spokesman said Olson was selected because of conservation merits such as a high-pitched tiled roof, elegant geometric masonry corbels (stone brackets), moulded concrete lattices and concrete louvred vents - all visually interesting and suited to a tropical climate. 'Not only do these features blend in harmoniously with the pared-down aesthetic of the building, they allow cross-ventilation, creating a 'cool-down' effect,' he added.

Singapore Institute of Architects president Theodore Chan said Olson has 'unique' elements characteristic of many buildings of its time that are no longer around today.

He said that the features providing cross- ventilation show an innovative streak in the architecture, at a time when there was no such thing as air-conditioning.

'The styles of certain seminal buildings mark milestones in architectural history,' he added.

He suggested that if the campus is turned into residential housing, Olson could be used as a clubhouse.

This is not without precedence. A conserved villa in St Patrick's Road, formerly owned by a descendant of wealthy Chinese merchant Tan Kim Seng, was converted into the Majestic Clubhouse when the condominium Grand Duchess at St Patrick's was built on the land occupied by the villa.

Still, conserving just one building from the campus may not do justice to the area's history, said Dr Kevin Tan, immediate past president of the Singapore Heritage Society. He noted that MGS was among the first educational institutions for girls here, when it was set up in 1897 by Australian missionary Sophia Blackmore.

'We tend to forget that the area was once a school and education district,' he said, adding that only a few original school buildings such as Chijmes (the former Convent Of The Holy Infant Jesus ) and the Singapore Art Museum (the former St Joseph's Institution) remain.

And as far as local architectural history is concerned, it may not just be Olson that matters.

Architectural conservation consultant Ho Weng Hin is part of a team commissioned by the Singapore Heritage Society to research and write a book on the nation's architectural history. The book, due to be released early next year, contains information on the Sophia Blackmore memorial hall, another building on the MGS campus which was built in 1953.

The two-storey building, with its clock tower, has distinctive features which he feels has as much importance historically and architecturally as Olson.

Mr Ho pointed out that the building was designed by a post-war pioneer local architect, Mr Seow Eu Jin.

He also said that the clock tower's facade was made of fairface brick - which gives the effect of exposed brickwork not covered by plaster - and this is the same material that gave the since demolished National Library in Stamford Road its iconic exterior.

Also, the building is an early example of the use of reinforced concrete for architects to create and play with bigger spaces.

The clock tower married form with function, housing a staircase which gave access to the second floor. The building also had a 'floating' cantilever balcony which spanned the entire facade. All these were features that made the building stand out from other school buildings designed by the Public Works Department, he added.

'The 1950s was an important period in our nation's history and such buildings commemorate our national history and social memories. We should also celebrate that this is a building designed by one of our pioneer local architects,' he said.

Whether Olson finds herself the only one left standing or not, former MGS pupils have fond memories of their time there. Ms Sim Ee Min, 45, a horti- culturalist who studied there in the 1970s, says: 'Each of the buildings represented a different academic level. Primary 6 pupils in one block, Primary 5 pupils in another and so on. I would look forward to when it was my turn to be where the older girls were.'

Ex-students bid farewell to old campus
More than 400 alumnae gather at Old School for a remembrance ceremony
By Amanda Lee, TODAY, 4 Jun 2012

One alumna recalled how she would sneak food into the library, while another recalled her weekly Saturday society session at the school hall. These were some of the memories of school days at their former Mount Sophia campus that the alumnae of Methodist Girls' School (MGS) fondly shared yesterday.

More than 400 alumnae and present students of MGS gathered at the school-turned-arts enclave - now called Old School - for a remembrance ceremony as the site's current lease comes to an end this month. The site has been zoned for residential development under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's 2008 Master Plan. 

Among those present was Dr Jacqueline Tay, who "happened to be in town" and learnt about the remembrance ceremony yesterday through her former classmates.

The obstetrician and gynaecologist, who now lives in Leeds, England, affectionately remembered how she was able to get a "good view of the sea from her classroom".

As an alumna of the class of 1977, Dr Tay also remembered her time as the head prefect when prefects had to "manage traffic control", "direct traffic" and "close the (school) gates".

Her classmate, Ms Michele Lim, remembers how she and her friends would "eat biscuits along the bookshelves in the library" and was never caught by the librarian for doing so.

Mdm June Wong, who graduated in the 1930s, recalled living in the boarding school with her four sisters. During her four-year stay, the 91-year-old remembered how they were "not allowed" to roam around the school compounds at night.

The MGS was founded by missionary Sophia Blackmore in 1887 on Short Street with an initial enrolment of nine Indian girls and later Nonyas, Chinese and Eurasians. It moved to the Mount Sophia site in 1928. Before that, the site housed Nind Home, a boarding house for girls built by the Methodist Mission, where Ms Blackmore worked and stayed. After the war, it was deemed an unsafe structure and demolished.

The school moved to its current campus on Blackmore Drive in 1992.

Old School now consists of businesses such as art studios, galleries, eateries and the Sinema theatre. 

Last year, MGS alumnae Carol Tham and Lim Li-Hsien launched "Save Old School" to campaign for the Government to conserve the Mount Sophia campus. The pair created a Facebook group called "Save Old School", which now has around 5,326 likes.

When approached by TODAY, Ms Lim Li-Hsien declined to comment on the campaign's progress as she did not want "to affect the discussion" with the Government.

* 3 historic structures on Mount Sophia to undergo $6.3 million restoration
Condo complex showcases how creative reuse and flexible models add value to conserved buildings
By Melody Zaccheus, Heritage and Community Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2018

It has been one of the country's best kept secrets but that will change when a former chapel on Mount Sophia that boasts some striking architectural features throws open its doors to the public next year.

This one-of-a-kind modernist tropical structure, which has been largely in private hands, is set to reopen as a restaurant, but will retain the sweeping roof beams forming the Chinese character "ren" (people) and a floating skylight.

The old chapel was built in 1969 by the Trinity Theological College and is one of three historic structures that developer Hoi Hup Sunway spent $6.3 million on restoring as part of its new $161 million condominium project, Sophia Hills.

It was a daunting challenge as it involved incorporating three conservation landmarks within a new condo complex. It took five years - a year longer than a typical condo build project - to complete.

In land-scarce but increasingly heritage-conscious Singapore, the authorities and developers have been tackling the challenge of repurposing old, conserved structures while maximising plot ratios.


The other two conserved structures within the Sophia Hills condominium perimeter - the Methodist Girls' School's 1928 Olson Building and the former 1941 Nan Hwa Girls' High School - have been repurposed to respectively house a clubhouse and childcare centre.

Rents for the upcoming restaurant and childcare centre will likely go towards the condo's maintenance and sinking funds, which will reduce fees for residents.

With the fate of multiple post-independence landmarks at risk of demolition, especially amid the en bloc frenzy, some experts said Sophia Hills is an example of how creative reuse and flexible models give old buildings a chance to add value to a development.

But this requires sacrifices on the part of the developer. Hoi Hup Sunway, for example, had to double its conservation budget along the way.

Mr Koon Wai Leong, who is the general manager of Hoi Hup Realty, told The Straits Times: "It's our first conservation-development project. We didn't want to do a half-hearted job."

Almost all 493 units at Sophia Hill have already been sold at an average price of around $2,000 per square foot. It obtained its Temporary Occupation Permit last month.

What is striking about the new project by Consortium 168 Architects is its rather bold acknowledgement of the past - terracotta cladding runs across the facade of its 12 low-rise blocks - in homage to the Olson Building, which has an expansive terracotta tile roof, and fairfaced brickwork along its facade.

The building is perched on the peak of the 30m tall Mount Sophia and overlooks the residential blocks and a swimming pool.

The redevelopment of the site, which was occupied by Methodist Girls' School (MGS) from 1928 to 1992, had been a contentious issue. In 2011, some MGS alumni started a campaign to save all six of the onsite school buildings. In the end, just one - the oldest of the lot, the Olson Building, was conserved. The rest were demolished.

Ms Sharmila Nair, 47, the alumni's honorary secretary, said she hopes that the Olson Building is "somehow kept open" to old girls.

Elements of the site's MGS past pop up intentionally across the development as a means to "enrich the heritage narrative of Sophia Hills", said Mr Koon.

For instance, historic "Crittall" steel windows with brass hinges from a demolished MGS building were restored and installed along a flight of stairs at the main drop-off point to keep the rain at bay.

Detailed studies were also done to uncover the original hue of Nan Hwa on the advice of the project's conservation consultant Studio Lapis. This required a team to scrape away layers of old paint and to skim coats. The three-storey building is now sporting a soothing grey hue and is one of three entrances into the condo.

Other developments with conserved structures include The Sea View condo in Katong, which repurposed a 1900s bungalow into a clubhouse. A Treasure Trove condo in Punggol also re-purposed the 1902 Matilda House as a clubhouse.

Where nutmeg used to be grown
By Melody Zaccheus, Heritage and Community Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2018

It takes some imagination to picture it now but nutmeg plantations once ran across Mount Sophia, Mount Emily and Mount Caroline in the Rochor area. The hills were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's 270-acre estate that heritage blogger Jerome Lim estimates was the size of present-day Gardens By The Bay.

When the crop failed, the land was split up and sold. The area was popular for the commanding views and isolation it offered, said Mr Lim, adding: "It was an exclusive area since a horse carriage was needed to access the hill."

The homes there included a mansion, the now demolished Eu Villa, designed by architecture firm Swan and MaClaren for businessman Eu Tong Sen. At one point, the grounds were home to the Adis Lodge built by Nissim Nassim Adis, the proprietor of Grand Hotel de L'Europe, where the old Supreme Court wing of the National Gallery stands today.

According to architectural conservation specialist consultant Studio Lapis, the wealthy gradually moved to the Tanglin area, leading various communities and institutions to buy some of the structures on Mount Sophia. Among them was the Methodist Mission, which had a significant presence on the hill from 1895. Some of the old houses it occupied housed training facilities for its pastoral staff. The Olson Building for the Methodist Girls' School was erected in 1928.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Nan Hwa Girls' High School and San Shan Public School were built. These still stand today, alongside at least five other old buildings, including the former Trinity Theological College chapel.

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