HERITAGE SPOTLIGHT

Heritage Spotlight: 144 Moulmein Road is European on the outside but Asian inside

144 Moulmein Road was built in the 1920s and gazetted as a conserved building in June 2014. It looks like a European-style house, with its decorative trimmings and corner turrets. The awning above the main doorway features Chinese motifs such as butt
144 Moulmein Road was built in the 1920s and gazetted as a conserved building in June 2014. It looks like a European-style house, with its decorative trimmings and corner turrets. PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
144 Moulmein Road was built in the 1920s and gazetted as a conserved building in June 2014. It looks like a European-style house, with its decorative trimmings and corner turrets. The awning above the main doorway features Chinese motifs such as butt
The awning above the main doorway features Chinese motifs such as butterflies and flowers.
144 Moulmein Road was built in the 1920s and gazetted as a conserved building in June 2014. It looks like a European-style house, with its decorative trimmings and corner turrets. The awning above the main doorway features Chinese motifs such as butt
The European- looking decorative trimmings reveal an Asian influence, such as ornamental eaves hanging from the corrugated tin roof.

144 Moulmein Road has European trimmings and turrets, but it features a Malay-style interior and Asian influences

From the outside, 144 Moulmein Road looks like a European-style house, with its decorative trimmings and corner turrets.

But step inside and architecture experts will immediately see that it is actually what they refer to as a Malay-type house.

For example, the interior layout comprises a front room, or serambi, running the full width of the housefront, where the owner would receive guests, followed by a central hall leading to the back of the house, flanked by at least a pair of bedrooms.

These are typical features of a Malay-type house, says Assistant Professor Imran Tajudeen of the Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore's School of Design & Environment.

Referring to the decorations on the exterior of the house as just "icing on the cake", he says they are "an outcome of British colonisation, when the British introduced neo-classical and pseudo-classical European ornamental motifs" which became fashionable for non-European home owners to adopt.

"But the core of it, the cake itself, is Malay-type."

The 3,500 sq ft house was built in the 1920s and gazetted as a conserved building in June 2014. It has been used by Tan Tock Seng Hospital as the Tuberculosis Control Unit of the Communicable Disease Centre since 1948.

Before that, the house was believed to have been occupied by a wealthy Chinese.

There are a few tell-tale signs of the previous owner's status: the property's expansive driveway and lawn and it being located away from the town centre. The rich could afford transport to get there by either car or carriage.

Also, there are knobs over the main doorway to hang a narrow signboard. Chinese homes would typically hang a board stating the family's specific district of origin in China as a means of preserving their identity after leaving their homeland.

It was not uncommon for the Chinese to own Malay-type houses, says Prof Imran, as the style was adopted by various ethnic groups.

However, the house is not Malaytype throughout. It features a mishmash of both Asian and European styles.

For example, the octagonal turret rooms at the front corners of the house are in the Queen Anne revival style, which was popular during the early 1900s.

Some distinguishing characteristics of the style are the steep roofs resembling a church spire and the turret room's octagonal shape (although some turret rooms can be round as well).

Closer inspection of the European-looking decorative trimmings reveals an Asian influence, such as a carved pineapple and ornamental eaves hanging from the corrugated tin roof.

The ornamental trim is called papan tumpu kasau or papan cantik (decorated fascia board), says Prof Imran, while the motif is a version of the "lebah bergantung tampuk manggis", literally translated from Malay to mean "hanging bees with mangosteen crown".

Also, although painted blue, the ornamented eaves, which are made of tin, would have originally been left unpainted. The material was expensive during the 1900s and using tin to decorate a house was a mark of wealth and status. It also serves a more practical purpose - to prevent rain from going into the rooms.

The house sits on a 49,000 sq ft plot of land. Looking around the spacious grounds under the bright afternoon sun, Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says: "We are happy to have kept this conserved building in good use. What is interesting about this garden setting is the idea of healthy architecture - having space, greenery and sunshine."


• This is a monthly column on heritage buildings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'European outside, Asian inside HeritageSpotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe