Heritage Gems

Former AGC building an icon of High Street

The Parliament Secretariat Office Block (left), the former AGC building where veteran legal officer Jeffrey Chan (below) started working in 1973, is connected to the newer Chamber Block via a linkway.
The Parliament Secretariat Office Block (above left), the former AGC building where veteran legal officer Jeffrey Chan started working in 1973, is connected to the newer Chamber Block via a linkway.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, ONG WEE JIN
The Parliament Secretariat Office Block (left), the former AGC building where veteran legal officer Jeffrey Chan (below) started working in 1973, is connected to the newer Chamber Block via a linkway.
The Parliament Secretariat Office Block, the former AGC building where veteran legal officer Jeffrey Chan (above) started working in 1973, is connected to the newer Chamber Block via a linkway.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, ONG WEE JIN

From places of worship to educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

With its mercantile roots, High Street, the first street to be built in Singapore, lived up to its name in the 1970s, with barbers, coolies and street food hawkers peddling their wares along the Singapore River.

Nestled in this bustling part of town is the former Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) building, located between the former Parliament House (now The Arts House) and the now-demolished Hallpike Street.

Today, the building, which was gazetted as a national monument in 1992, serves as the Parliament Secretariat Office Block and is part of Parliament House. The national monument is connected to the newer Chamber Block through a linkway that was built in the 1990s.

The earliest use of the building's site dates back to 1839, when a previous structure there was used by a court.

The two-storey building underwent a major construction and had its facade renovated in 1906. The result, which is the most visible part of the building facing the National Gallery Singapore, remains today.

Veteran legal officer Jeffrey Chan, 66, principal senior consultant at AGC, started working there in 1973. The Attorney-General is the chief legal adviser to the Government and its public prosecutor.

Mr Chan recalled that the first skill he and his peers had to learn when they first worked there had nothing to do with the law - it was learning how to park their cars in the narrow carpark spaces at the adjacent Hallpike Street, which was located where the Parliament courtyard is today.

The office had no more than 50 people working there at that time. But it had a vibrant hinterland in the hub of activity at the mouth of the Singapore River.

"In the early 1970s, the area was buzzing. It was full of street life - you had the tongkang boats in the Singapore River, you had all these people carrying bags of rice up and down, you had hawkers, you had deliverymen," said Mr Chan.

One character he vividly remembers was an old Chinese barber who provided more than haircuts.

"He worked in the open, with a dirty mirror and an old-style barber chair. But haircuts weren't the only service he provided - he also helped to dig your ears with the help of a standing light bulb. A lot of old people patronised his services."

In its history of more than a century, the building has hosted a number of government departments, such as the Government Printing Office around the turn of the 20th century and the Public Works Department (PWD) from the 1930s to 1970, before the AGC took over in 1971.

MEMORIES

I wish that more of these places where people feel familiar and have intangible experiences with will be conserved, not just those buildings that have national significance.

MASTER'S STUDENT IN PUBLIC POLICY FOO MINGYEE, on preserving heritage.

It then became part of the Parliament House when its construction was completed in 1999 at a cost of $108 million. It was restored and renovated to cater for a new and larger library, including meeting rooms as well as the secretariat's office. The roof was replaced and rebuilt.

"Being a conservation building, the design of the library interiors follows likewise, reflecting an elegant and classic character throughout. However, to keep a contemporary feel to the space, heavy details and mouldings had to be avoided," said Mr Tan Chee Wee, 66, who was a deputy director of the former PWD.

"Instead, simple, clean lines and materials in classic proportions take their place, creating a harmonious blend of the past and the present," added Mr Tan, who is now a director at CPG Consultants, a subsidiary of CPG Corporation, which is the corporatised entity of PWD.

He was involved in the building's preservation when he oversaw the construction of the new Parliament House from 1994. The white facade with its elaborate details stands out compared with the newer block of the Parliament House, which carries a more modern "colonnade" design.

Mr Chan said that even other old buildings in the area, such as the Empress Place Building, which now houses the Asian Civilisations Museum, are "totally different - that is a lot simpler, a lot more spartan", than the High Street building.

Dr Imran Tajudeen, an assistant professor at the department of architecture at the National University of Singapore, said: "The baroque ornamentation, which includes features like windows framed by a semi-circular recess, is uncommon in other public buildings of colonial Singapore, though we may find such ornamentation on some ornate shophouse facades."

Some of the other features, such as the curved pediments on the corner extensions adorned with oval shield motifs, are inspired by neo-classical architecture. These motifs can also be found in the nearby Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.

While the AGC was there, many important legal cases were prepared, such as the Commissions of Inquiry into the Spyros industrial disaster of 1978 and the Sentosa cable car collapse of 1983, and the "gold bar" murders of 1971.

Much of the facade has been preserved, although the building was not in good shape in the 1970s. It was in need of maintenance, and security was also an issue.

Mr Chan, who was formerly deputy solicitor-general, said: "The building was becoming a little bit sad for us at that time... It was an old building that needed very substantial renovations; it leaked very badly, especially at a time when we were starting to buy computers."

Mr Chan also said the building was "very exposed", especially to public order incidents such as riots, as the back door was always open and anyone could have come in.

"But I would have been very sad if the building had been demolished, and sadder still if it were to be put to some other use that had nothing to do with the law," he added.

Happily, that is not the case, as the building continues as a part of Parliament.

Master's student in public policy Foo Mingyee, 25, said that the building was situated in what used to be the "European town" of Singapore, with hot spots such as Aurora Department Store for the young and fashionable at the junction of High Street and North Bridge Road back then.

"I wish that more of these places where people feel familiar and have intangible experiences with will be conserved, not just those buildings that have national significance."

Dr Imran thinks that the presence of historical buildings remains important because they "evoke the character of a city's earlier eras".

"Hence, even if only the facade is retained, it contributes to a layered sense of a city's past."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Former AGC building an icon of High Street'. Print Edition | Subscribe