Heritage Spotlight

Hue's the boss

Framed panels (left) that depict birds and flowers. A 1980s picture of the facade of 66 Spottiswoode Park Road.
Shophouse height.PHOTO: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
Framed panels (left) that depict birds and flowers. A 1980s picture of the facade of 66 Spottiswoode Park Road.
Framed panels (above) that depict birds and flowers.PHOTO: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
Framed panels (left) that depict birds and flowers. A 1980s picture of the facade of 66 Spottiswoode Park Road.
Auspicious sayings.PHOTO: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
Framed panels (left) that depict birds and flowers. A 1980s picture of the facade of 66 Spottiswoode Park Road.
A 1980s picture of the facade of 66 Spottiswoode Park Road. PHOTO: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

Second storey of a Spottiswoode Park Road shophouse is Singapore's oldest painted facade that is still intact

On a street with colour-coordinated shophouses, the two-storey one at 66 Spottiswoode Park Road makes passers-by do a double take with its mismatched facade.

The first storey of the house is painted a blood-red hue, while the exterior of the upper floor is a mix of rust-brown and ultramarine blue and decorated with murals.

The second storey of the shophouse holds the honour of being Singapore's oldest painted facade that is still intact, says the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

  • Highlights

    1. SHOPHOUSE HEIGHT

    The property is sandwiched between other buildings which are at least one storey higher. It suggests that it was built earlier than its neighbours. It also points to the area's development as the house is set lower than the road today.

    Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, explains that after the road was paved over through the years, it became higher than the house's five-footway. He adds that the shophouse could be the oldest house on the road.

    2. BIRD AND FLOWER PANELS

    These framed panels are between the French windows. The middle one shows either a golden pheasant or a magpie swooping down. The two panels on the ends feature flowers such as chrysanthemums.

    The free-style drawings suggest the work of a skilled painter. Artists then, who likely did the plaster work as well, had to make sure they got it right the first time as they could not re-do their work because they had to paint while the plaster was still wet.

    The iron oxide-red plaster fresco, with the "cracked ice" pattern on the second level, mimics a terracotta finish. This is the only large-scale plaster fresco in Singapore.

    The ultramarine blue is likely a later addition, says assistant professor of architectural history, theory and criticism Yeo Kang Shua from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, as the synthetic colour was not invented until the early 20th century.

    The use of these colours has historians and architects confused. Blue would be an unusual colour for Chinese families, who would prefer an auspicious hue such as red. Dr Yeo speculates that the original owner picked this combination as there were limited options available and using more colours would be costly.

    3. AUSPICIOUS SAYINGS

    Scrolls above all the windows on both floors have Chinese characters with lucky sayings such as lan gui(referring to orchids and osmanthus flowers, which symbolise a noble character) and fang teng (meaning honourable success). These words were inscribed to reflect the aspirations of the owners.

When the house was built in the 1890s, its first storey might have been painted blue while the second storey was painted in a mix of rust-brown and ultramarine blue, says assistant professor of architectural history, theory and criticism Yeo Kang Shua from the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

As the shophouse changed ownership, the various home owners painted it different colours. For example, one had painted over its original colours a white or pale blue, as seen in old photographs.

Over time, the layers of lime- based paints on the second storey started fading. The original colour of the second storey - the mix of rust-brown and ultramarine blue - was subsequently revealed.

Dr Yeo says: "When this happened, it revealed the traditional fresco work and brightly coloured paint on the second storey. It overthrew all the preconceptions of what colours were used for shophouses at that time."

Traditional paint colours of that era included yellow ochres, a warm colour, unlike the brighter options used for this shophouse. The current red paint on the walls of the ground-floor facade is a relatively new layer of paint.

The original layer of paint on this facade might still be beneath layers of subsequent paints and can be determined for sure only "with a paint stratification test to find out the exact paint layers and their composition", says Dr Yeo.

For historians who study period architecture, the facade, with its Chinese fresco of simulated brick, calligraphy and rectangular panels of traditional "bird and flower" paintings on the second level, raises questions about the first owner's wealth and decor choices.

Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at URA, says: "Building plans of the area from the 1890s showed plain buildings, suggesting that those who lived there were constrained by budget for decorations. But with these decorations and colours, which were associated with those who were well-to-do, this shophouse is an anomaly."

The shophouse is now a residential property that is available for rent by its owner.

•This is a monthly column on heritage buildings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Hue's the boss '. Print Edition | Subscribe