Heritage Gems

Old Hill Street Police Station: Opening the windows to a colourful history

Top: The Old Hill Street Police Station, which is now used as office space. Its iconic windows were painted in shades of the rainbow after it was restored in December 1997. Above: The building in 1995 before its $82 million makeover led by CPG Consul
The Old Hill Street Police Station, which is now used as office space. Its iconic windows were painted in shades of the rainbow after it was restored in December 1997.PHOTOS: JOYCE FANG, ST FILE
Top: The Old Hill Street Police Station, which is now used as office space. Its iconic windows were painted in shades of the rainbow after it was restored in December 1997. Above: The building in 1995 before its $82 million makeover led by CPG Consul
The building in 1995 before its $82 million makeover led by CPG Consultants.PHOTOS: JOYCE FANG, ST FILE

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here 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.

Love them or not, the rainbow-hued louvred windows of the Old Hill Street Police Station (OHSPS) have come to be associated with the corner of Hill Street and River Valley Road.

Older Singaporeans will know, however, that for most of their life, the windows were grey.

When the six-storey police station and barracks was constructed in 1934 to house some 1,000 policemen and their families, it was billed as a "police skyscraper" by The Straits Times.

Designed by chief architect Frank Dorrington Ward of the former Public Works Department, the building was part of a consolidation effort to house the police force in large barracks around the city area.

Retired police officer Saraj Din, who came to Singapore from India in 1952, was one of its occupants. The 71-year-old first set foot in the station as a child, to visit relatives who lived in the building.

"My uncle used to live in the quarters near the entrance on the ground floor," he recounted, pointing to the smaller block which faces River Valley Road. "Later, he moved to the inner block on the second or third floor."

He looked forward to those Saturday night visits, when films would be screened at the main courtyard.

"We would gather at the open patch to watch Malay films, cowboy movies, or whatever they were showing," he said. "Tarzan films were a huge crowd-pleaser."

  • EVOLUTION OF A BUILDING

  • 1934: Construction of the Hill Street Police Station and Barracks was completed. It was the largest government building at the time of its opening. 

    1935: It was temporarily renamed the Silver Jubilee Building to mark the 25th anniversary of King George V's reign.

    1942 - 1945: During the Japanese Occupation, the Kempeitai (Japanese Military Police) used the building to hold and interrogate suspects. They also painted it a whitish-grey and brown camouflage pattern. The police regained control of the building after the war. 

    1984: New occupants moved in, which included the Board of Film Censors, Oral History and Archives Department and the Public Trustees. The building now became known as the Hill Street Building.

    1997: An extensive $82 million restoration project began, to transform the police station into office spaces to house the Ministry of Information and the Arts (Mita).

    1998: The building was gazetted as a national monument, along with four other buildings, bringing the total number of national monuments in Singapore to 42 (at the time it was gazetted). 

    2000: The refurbishment was completed and Mita moved into its new headquarters. It was renamed the Mita Building. 

    2004: While Mita had been restructured into the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts in 2001, it adopted the Mica acronym only this year, and the building was renamed Mica Building accordingly.

    2012: The building was renamed again as the Old Hill Street Police Station, after the restructuring of several ministries. 

    Present: Today, the 83-year-old building houses the Ministry of Communications and Information, and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

His uncle retired from the police force in 1959, but Mr Saraj Din returned to the building four years later as a police cadet.

In April 1963, he moved into the fourth-floor bachelor quarters of the police station, at a monthly rental of about $8 to $20 - which took up the bulk of his salary then.

"It was the most modern building in the whole area," Mr Saraj Din said. "Everybody wanted to live here and there was a long waiting list."

Unlike the other barracks in Pearl's Hill and Tanjong Pagar which still used buckets, the toilets at OHSPS had a flush system. There was even a lift that went to the higher floors.

Another former occupant, Mr Abdul Rahman Hasan, 66, who lived with his family in the building in the 1950s, remembers the canteen on the second floor.

"There was free curry and tea, and bread which cost 10 cents - quite a treat for me at the time," he said.

Beside the canteen was a barber shop, which policemen visited in the evenings, and a small mess with a billiards table and a radio which was usually tuned to the Malay news station, Mr Saraj Din recalled.

But what the 83-year-old building has been most famous for are the 927 windows that adorn its facade.

  • 927

  • Number of windows in the Old Hill Street Police Station.

Aside from the views they offered of the nearby Singapore River and its surrounding trade, they also provided plenty of ventilation for its occupants. It was "very airy", said Mr Saraj Din.

Besides the windows, intricate corbels - supporting structures that jut out from the wall - holding up the uppermost floors and cantilevered balconies gave the building a majestic presence, all part of the architect's signature neo-classical style that can also be seen in Mr Ward's other projects - the old Supreme Court Building, now part of the National Gallery, and the former Traffic Police Headquarters in Maxwell Road.

According to Dr Yeo Kang Shua, who specialises in architectural history, theory and criticism at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, this structure was not just for aesthetics, as the "tight site", constrained by Fort Canning Hill behind and two major thoroughfares at its sides, meant that Mr Ward had to be innovative.

This is seen in the addition of the cantilevered upper floors protruding from the building's main facade, which creates more room for its occupants.

"Two internal courtyards (one triangular and the other rectangular) were also created to balance the need for light and air," he added.

The police moved out of the building in 1981, and the barracks were subsequently converted into office space for several government departments.

In December 1997, the building underwent an extensive $82 million restoration project, which took about two years. Led by CPG Consultants, the project was to transform the building to house the headquarters of the then Ministry of Information and the Arts. That was when the windows were painted in the iconic shades of the rainbow.

"Careful consideration was given in deciding what elements were to be retained and conserved, and what were not... to accommodate the new function and brief within the constraints of the existing structure," said Mr Colin Wu, CPG's senior vice-president (architecture).

"Colour was introduced, not only on the windows of the building but also on the internal facade of the courtyards, to create a more lively and vibrant atmosphere."

Today, the open courtyard where films were once screened has a glass roof, and has been converted into an air-conditioned art exhibition space. The original timber windows have been restored and painted in the vibrant colours seen today. New blocks were also added, using "light" architectural materials such as glass, steel and granite.

"A deep understanding and knowledge of the existing structures (is required) in order to carefully design the new functions, but maintain respect for and retain critical elements of the old building," Mr Wu added.

For its former occupants, it will never be quite the same but they are thankful that it was spared the wrecking ball.

"The building is not as imposing and majestic as before, now it has a softer feel," Mr Saraj Din lamented. "But it blends with the present environment."

Mr Abdul Rahman added: "Every time I pass by the place, I tell whoever I'm with - that (this building) was where I grew up.

"I am very proud to see that it still stands even after all these years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Opening the windows to a colourful history'. Print Edition | Subscribe