SINGAPORE - The Land Transport Authority (LTA) will engage a conservation specialist to advise on how best to minimise the impact of upcoming tunnel works on the historical 1924 Ellison Building.
The authorities had said in August that one of the building's nine units would be torn down to make way for the upcoming North-South Corridor, a 21.5km expressway.
They said then that the building's demolished corner - comprising house numbers 235, 237 and 239 - would be rebuilt once the tunnel is completed in 2026.
This was despite the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) conservation gazette of the building located at the junction of Selegie Road and Rochor Canal Road. It was constructed by Romanian Jew Isaac Ellison and is known for its cupolas, as well as the Star of David on its facade.
The news led heritage lovers to express concern and appeal to the authorities to reconsider.
History behind Ellison
The Ellison Building, at the junction of Selegie Road and Rochor Canal Road, was commonly believed to have been constructed in 1924 by Isaac Ellison, a leading member of the Jewish community here, for his wife Flora.
But the grandson of the late Ellison has told The Straits Times this is not true. Instead, his grandfather, who arrived here from Romania, had built the two-storey structure for commercial purposes and as well as to embody the Jewish community’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“It was also meant to leave behind a legacy for Singapore, contribute to the culture and heritage of the area, and shape the city,” Mr Steven Ellison, 66, a development consultant, told The Straits Times over the phone from Australia.
He also shed more light on the conserved building, which has a Star of David on its facade.
He recalled how the neighbouring Rex Cinema, then owned by the Shaw Brothers, had utilised the Ellison Building’s roof to display their lighted movie signs in the early 1960s.
In 1989, the Ellison Building was sold by the family to a property developer named Dennis Aw. Mr Steven Ellison said the Rent Control Act did not allow the Ellisons to raise rentals and they could no longer afford to upkeep the building. It was sold to another firm in the mid-1990s, before it came into the hands of the Government.
The late Ellison died overseas at 65, and is buried in Vienna. According to an obituary, he was reputed to be a very wealthy man. Mr Steven recalled how he owned Iky’s Bar near Raffles Place. Iky was his grandfather’s nickname.
Mr Steven said his grandfather also built a mansion for his wife, an Iraqi Jewess from Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar. This was at 87 Wilkie Road, next to Mount Emily. Some of the Ellisons are still based in Singapore. They include Mr Steven Ellison’s aunt and two children.
Yesterday, both the LTA and URA told The Straits Times that implementation plans will be finalised only after the completion of the conservation specialist's report and discussions with heritage groups.
Some observers said this appears to be a turnaround, after both agencies had earlier said it was not possible to completely avoid the building "in order to realise an important national infrastructure" as a section of it lies along the corridor's alignment.
But the LTA yesterday said the intention to hire a conservation expert had always been part of the plan.
Both the LTA and URA said they had met heritage experts twice this month and had engaged the heritage groups to hear their views on possible measures to protect Ellison Building during the construction process.
ST understands these sessions were attended by representatives from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Singapore, the Singapore Heritage Society, the Singapore Institute of Architects as well as a heritage blogger.
Some of these experts said the initial decision disregarded the heritage value of the building and strongly urged the authorities to explore other options.
The experts told ST that they suggested several other possibilities at the first session. These included propping the structure up and strengthening the foundation while the corridor is built; providing underpinning support for the building while works are being done; and gutting out the first floor, while propping up, reinforcing and retaining the second floor .
Some said they believe that there might now be hope for the historical building. They noted that appointing an experienced and independent heritage conservation specialist could provide some practical ways to retain the structure and save it from partial demolition.
Icomos (Singapore) president Kevin Tan said: "We had a fruitful meeting with the authorities. It is good that we are now collectively exploring a whole lot more options."
Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, who was at the first meeting, urged the authorities to consult earlier before decisions are made and noted that the building's curved corner and its cupolas are distinctive features.
The building itself marked the limits of the Singapore municipality, he noted.
He said: “The conversation should start earlier. It should be as upstream as possible.”