101-year-old Fairfield Girls' building gets total makeover

Standing in front of the restored building in Neil Road are (from left) Mr Patrick Tan, 45, who grew up on the grounds of the old school; his mother Ong Thian Wah, 72, a long-time staff attendant at the school; former Fairfield principal Tang Poh Kim
Standing in front of the restored building in Neil Road are (from left) Mr Patrick Tan, 45, who grew up on the grounds of the old school; his mother Ong Thian Wah, 72, a long-time staff attendant at the school; former Fairfield principal Tang Poh Kim, 72, and Fairfield alumni June Lim, 52, and Joni Ong, 53.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

After 30 years of neglect, building is fully restored and has new occupants

For a few minutes at noon, cheongsam-wearing teachers would get just as excited as their ponytailed students. From the louvred windows of the Victorian-style building that was then Fairfield Girls' School, they would reach out to the tau huay and ice- cream sellers outside.

A cramped staffroom, where teachers shared small wooden desks; a school bell rung by hand; and a basement library where schoolgirls spent hours reading - these were some of the memories that came rushing back when former Fairfield student and, later, principal Tang Poh Kim, 72, stepped into the two-storey building at 178 Neil Road on Tuesday.

It has now been finally restored, at a cost of $6 million, after nearly 30 years of being left in disrepair and disuse.

"It's more than a building - it holds the memories and stories of the lives touched and the role the school had in building up the Christian community in the Chinatown area," said Mrs Tang, who started teaching in 1964 and left in 2000 after becoming principal in 1983, when Fairfield left Neil Road for Dover.

On Tuesday, she toured the 101-year-old building - which now houses the Home Team Career Centre for police recruitment - ahead of today's thanksgiving service by Methodist bishop Wee Boon Hup. The service will be attended by about 120 former staff and students.

Constructed on a sloping terrain by the Public Works Department in 1912, the building features ornate details such as intricate plasterwork panels and imposing arches, which have been restored.

Part of the Blair Plain conservation area, the building's internal structure and columns were also strengthened, its beams replaced, and the original brick facade given a fresh coat of paint and plaster.

The makeover is a result of a two-year-long renovation spearheaded by the building's owner, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The building, with around 1,280 sq m of floor space, was also occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

It was vacated by the school in 1983 because it could no longer accommodate the growing student body, and the building was handed over to MHA as part of the Police Cantonment Complex land parcel.

But despite being conserved in 2000 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, it was left derelict for years - to the dismay of former staff and students. Three years ago, restoration plans were kick-started.

MHA arranged for architects from CPG Consultants - the former Public Works Department and an award-winning architectural firm that has been involved in the conservation of national monuments such as the Central Fire Station - to meet former staff and students as part of the research process.

The architects were given access to old photographs of the building. A decision was also made to name two meeting rooms after the school and its founder, Australian missionary Sophia Blackmore.

While the building's external brick facade is original, several elements had to be replicated and replaced as they had deteriorated beyond repair. These included the roof, the central timber staircase, doors, windows, floorboards and custom- made "green bottle" balustrades.

Craftsmen were also deployed to touch up and repair decorative features such as mouldings, keystones and timber trimmings, in a bid to restore the "charm and allure" of the century-old building, said the lead project designer, senior architectural associate Vera Tan, 28.

To lend a modern touch, add-ons from the 1950s and 1960s, such as a canopy, timber louvres and shutters, were removed and full-height glass was used to enable its open-air balconies to be air-conditioned.

The renovations were completed in June, and in September, police recruitment centre staff began moving into the new office.

National University of Singapore architectural historian Lai Chee Kien said erecting glass panels across the building's exterior has made it different from the original but the restoration has been "done well".

He said: "It stands out more than ever along the stretch of Neil Road and suggests how old the area is. The touches are simple but refined and echo some of the other older schools in Singapore, such as St Joseph's Institution and Raffles Institution."

Former student Joni Ong, 53, who is now chairman of the school's board of management, told The Straits Times after Tuesday's visit that she was impressed by the upgrading. She said: "We're glad that it has finally been revived and that the memories of the wonderful relationships forged between teachers and students get to live on proudly."