The Houses Before Arts House

The Houses Before Arts House

Among the cluster of colonial architecture at the North East bank of the Singapore River are some of the oldest buildings in Singapore. The Empress Place Building (1864) is now the Asian Civilisations Museum, one of the top museums in Asia according to a recent TripAdvisor poll. The original Town Hall (1862) is now the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, a performing arts venue. And finally you have the Arts House at The Old Parliament (1827) – a building that has changed hands many times over the two centuries.

The Arts House is arguably the oldest existing government building, but very little remain of the original 1827 edifice. It has undergone many alterations and additions – most notably in 1873, 1901 and 1953. The extensions have transformed the building physically from the original GD Coleman Neo-Palladian design to the Victorian one today.

The Arts House at The Old Parliament today. The building served many houses before it was the old Parliament House.

The Arts House at The Old Parliament today. The building served many houses before it became the old Parliament House.

The Arts House today was once a courtshouse, which housed the Supreme Court. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

The Arts House today was once a courtshouse, and later it housed the Supreme Court. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

It later became the Assembly House in the 1950s and housed the new Legislative Assembly of Singapore. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

It later became the Assembly House in the 1950s and housed the new Legislative Assembly of Singapore. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The Arts House opened in 2004 as a multi-disciplinary arts centre, taking possession of a building that has been re-purposed multiple times. It was first built as a residential home for John Argyle Maxwell, one of the three magistrates appointed by Raffles in 1823. The mansion was one of Coleman’s first projects and it paved the way for his other impressive landmarks including the Armenian Church, Caldwell House, and the original St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Maxwell never occupied this riverside residence. He leased it to the colonial administration, who used the premises to house government offices and the first courthouse. The Supreme Court also occupied this building for a period until 1939, when it moved to the purpose-built Supreme Court building about 200 metres away.

After 1939, the building became a government storehouse and was also used as the office to the Department of Social Welfare. The building was refurbished again in 1953 to house the new Legislative Assembly of Singapore. It was renamed the Assembly House. When Chief Minister David Marshall was elected in 1955, he was given an office in the Assembly House.

Chief Minister David Marshall meeting unionists outside the Assembly House in 1955. Image Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Chief Minister David Marshall meeting unionists outside the Assembly House in 1955. Image Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak opens the Third Session of Legislative Assembly at the Assembly House on 31 October 1961. Among attendees are Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and other legislative members. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak opens the Third Session of Legislative Assembly at the Assembly House on 31 October 1961. Among the attendees are Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye and other legislative members. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

When Singapore gained independence, the building became the Parliament House and housed parliament sessions. The first parliament session was opened by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak on 8 December 1965. He was later designated President through Constitution (Amendment) Bill on 22 December 1965.

The building became the Parliament House after Singapore’s independence. Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak takes the salute from Singapore Infantry Regiment guard of honour during the opening of the First Singapore Parliament on 8 December 1965. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The building became the Parliament House after Singapore’s independence. Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak takes the salute from Singapore Infantry Regiment guard of honour during the opening of the First Singapore Parliament on 8 December 1965. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The official opening of the new Parliament House on 4 October 1999. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The official opening of the new Parliament House on 4 October 1999. Image Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The members of parliament grew from 51 in 1963 to 75 in 1983. By the 1980s, there were increasing space constraints which led to a need for a larger parliament house. The construction for the current parliament house facing North Bridge Road began in 1995 and completed in July 1999. On 6 September 1999, the flag of Singapore was lowered for the final time at the (old) Parliament House.

In 2004, the Old Parliament House went through another restoration exercise to become the Arts House. The chambers were converted to house performances.

The Arts House was Singapore's first court and parliament houses.

The Arts House was Singapore’s first court and parliament houses.

The Elephant Statue was a gift from Thailand's King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to commemorate his 1871 visit. The statue was originally displayed outside the Victoria Memorial Hall but was shifted to this site in 1919.

The Elephant Statue at the Arts House was a gift from Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to commemorate his 1871 visit to Singapore. The statue was originally displayed outside the Victoria Memorial Hall but was shifted to this site in 1919.

The Arts House now actively promotes the arts and creative scene in Singapore, focusing on the literary, film and performing arts.

The Arts House now actively promotes the arts and creative scene in Singapore, and focuses on the literary, film and performing arts.

The next time you watch a performance at the Arts House, remember the many houses it once was. Originally built as a house for Maxwell, it was used as a courthouse. Later it became the Assembly House, and the Parliament House after Singapore’s independence. Finally it is the Arts House today, the home to a multi-disciplinary arts centre.

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