Parts of heritage site Palmer House to be cleared for MRT

Tanjong Pagar site includes Parsi grave ruins, historical buildings

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Palmer House, built in 1956 and made to look like a giant boathouse, will be demolished to make way for the Prince Edward MRT station.
Palmer House, built in 1956 and made to look like a giant boathouse, will be demolished to make way for the Prince Edward MRT station. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Parts of a heritage site in Tanjong Pagar that dates back to Singapore's colonial era are set to make way for the future Prince Edward MRT station.

A knoll that houses the remnants of six Parsi graves will be levelled, along with Palmer House, likely built in 1956, and part of the Bestway Building - the former Singapore Polytechnic.

The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) had flagged the area as worthy of protection a decade ago, while heritage expert Johannes Widodo from the National University of Singapore described it as "one of the most important places in the history of early 19th-century Singapore".

Some in the heritage community said they were not informed or consulted about the demolition of these places before the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced the station last October as part of the 4km Circle Line Stage 6.

International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore president Kevin Tan believes Palmer House, which is built in the "streamline moderne" architecture style and designed to look like a giant boathouse, should not be torn down. "Why do that when its key features are intact?" he asked.

Station to avoid 3 religious structures

In a joint reply to The Straits Times, the LTA, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and National Heritage Board (NHB) said heritage considerations were woven into the design of Prince Edward station. Given the space constraints of the site, many options had been studied, they said, adding that the station's location was chosen to avoid affecting structures with the most heritage value in the area.

  • Rich layers of history

  • Mount Palmer once housed a colonial-era military fort, one of a series of batteries set up to protect the town from a sea attack.

    The hill was named after John Palmer, a merchant from Calcutta, who purchased the land shortly after Sir Stamford Raffles started developing Singapore.

    Part of his land was sold to a Parsi who converted it into a Parsi burial ground. The earliest tombstone reportedly dates back to 1828.

    The area, known historically as Tanjong Malang, was also where Raffles hanged the body of merchant Syed Yasin in chains after he had stabbed Colonel William Farquhar in 1823.

    Scholars believe the site must have been home to a thriving community and important enough to have been selected for the grim public display.

    Prior to the arrival of the British, the channel into Keppel Harbour from the Tanjong Malang promontory was used by local and South-east Asian vessels, according to archaeologist Lim Chen Sian's 2006 report on the site.

    Mount Palmer was eventually levelled in the second reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin in the early 1900s.

    Left today are remnants from the Parsi burial ground which include the ruins of six tombs. Parsis migrated from Persia to India in the seventh century to avoid persecution. They first arrived in Singapore in the 1800s and lived around Parsi Road and the Tanjong Pagar area.

    One member who likely had a house there was Cursetjee Fromurzee, the founder-partner of Little Cursetjee and Company, known as John Little today - Singapore's oldest department store.

    The area is home to modern and architecturally significant structures: the 1958 modernist Bestway Building in Tanjong Pagar that used to house Singapore's first school of architecture, and the 1956 Palmer House - the former home of the Chinese Young Men Christians' Association.

MRT construction works will skirt around three religious structures there - the 1844 Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple, the 1902 Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh and the 1866 Keramat Habib Noh shrine.

The authorities said Palmer House and part of the Bestway Building will be demolished to construct Prince Edward station, while Mount Palmer and a single-storey structure in the Bestway compound will make way for the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal.

Among the remnants of the former Mount Palmer are the ruins of 19th-century tombs, including a four-pillared arched Parsi mausoleum. The tombs were built using red clay bricks and lime plaster.

Some in the architectural community believe the 1958 Bestway Building, home to Singapore's first architecture school, should be kept intact to be better understood as a school compound.

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien said the site represented a key milestone in technical education which had helped to drive the country's economic development.

The authorities said Block C - the Bestway compound's main building - will not be affected by construction. The URA previously said that the Bestway Building was being studied for conservation.

Work on Prince Edward station will begin at the end of next year.

The authorities also said the NHB has started work with the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute to carry out an archaeological investigation and documentation of the former Parsi cemetery. The findings "will serve as archival records for future research and reference", they said.

SHS executive committee member Dr Yeo Kang Shua called for the authorities to carry out heritage impact assessments before any development plans are finalised.

He said: "This will help to address heritage and developmental issues in a transparent manner with proper documentation as well as mitigation measures to help protect heritage concerns and allow more time for documentation."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2016, with the headline Parts of heritage site Palmer House to be cleared for MRT. Subscribe