Heritage Spotlight

Ascott Raffles Place Singapore was tallest building in Southeast Asia in the 1950s

It is no longer the tallest in S-E Asia, but the former Asia Insurance Company building stands proudly restored as a serviced residence

Nero Portoro Italian marble.
Nero Portoro Italian marble.ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

 Long before Ascott Raffles Place Singapore became dwarfed by skyscrapers that came up around it, those approaching the country by air would look out for it as a landmark on the southern coast.

After all, the 18-storey building that faced the sea was hard to miss then. Completed in 1955, it was the tallest structure in South-east Asia at that time and also one of the rare buildings to have air-conditioning.

The Art Deco-style building at 2 Finlayson Green in Raffles Place was designed by pioneer architect, Dr Ng Keng Siang, the first Singapore member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was built for the Asia Insurance Company, which used it as its headquarters.

The steel-framed high-rise structure - this made it earthquake- proof - had luxurious finishings such as Nero Portoro Italian marble (a black stone with gold veins) and cream-coloured premium Italian Travertine stone for its facade.

Ms Yeo Su Fen, a senior architect with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), says: "It was significant at that time as it was a modern building that stood as a symbol of Singapore's emergence as an economic powerhouse ."

But by the time The Ascott Limited, one of the world's largest international serviced residence owneroperator, acquired it in 2006, the building looked worn and tired.

To bring it back to its glory days, the company spent $60 million restoring and preserving various parts of the building, converting it from an office building to a serviced residence.

Some major work included adding an infinity pool and a two- storey-tall "glass box" that houses new rooms at the top of the building, and a new drop-off canopy on the ground floor.

Also, two separate lift cores, originally located at the sides of the building, were moved to the centre, taking up an existing airwell.

Hospitality interior design company Hirsch Bedner Associates picked mid-century and Art Deco- style furniture, such as wire mesh bar stools by Italian-born American furniture designer Harry Bertoia, to complement the exteriors.

In 2007, the URA officially gazetted the building for conservation. Two years later, it became the first serviced apartment in Singapore to be conferred the URA's Architectural Heritage Award, which recognised the new owner's sensitive restoration efforts.

•This is a monthly column on conservation buildings.

Five highlights of Ascott Raffles Place Singapore

1 Nero Portoro Italian marble

The elegant black marble with gold veins, which covers the walls of the double-volume ground floor, was discoloured over the years.

The marble was intensely polished to get its shine back. For more intricate parts such as the fluting of the columns, handheld polishers were used to get into the narrow grooves.

2 Travertine facade

When The Ascott Limited took over the building, many of the travertine panels had cracks or looked like they had been dislodged. Instead of its sophisticated cream shade, the stone had yellowed.

Ms Sui Ang, a trained architect and assistant vice-president of product and technical services for Ascott, says: "We couldn't replace the entire facade, so the travertine was patched up and repolished."

RSP Architects Planners and Engineers, which was in charge of the building's restoration, also inserted stainless steel pins into the facade's 20,000 panels to hold them in place.

3 Mail chute

The original building had a brass mail chute running through it. Mail from all floors were dropped in the chute and collected at a central depository on the ground floor. The concept was created by New York architect and businessman James Cutler in 1883, who patented the design.

In the restoration process, the chute was moved from its original location. It is now located next to the lifts and is still in use.

4 Stainless steel crown

A three-tiered scalloped stainless steel crown tops the building. It was created to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

5 Steel window frames

Instead of putting in modern-looking window frames, more than 300 steel window frames with brass handles were preserved. However, the window panels had to be replaced as the original thin glass allowed too much heat and noise in.

•Heritage of Our Modern Past, an ongoing Urban Redevelopment Authority photo exhibition of conserved buildings and national monuments from the 1930s to 1970s, features the Ascott Raffles Place Singapore. The exhibition is on till June 30 at The URA Centre, 45 Maxwell Road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Once among Asia's giants'. Print Edition | Subscribe