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 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.
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 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 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.