Revamp to breathe new life into 159-year-old Chijmes

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 22, 2013

The 159-year-old grand old dame that is Chijmes looks set to reinvent itself, again. And with new owners too.

Next week, the group that bought the historic site in 2011 will kickstart a $45-million renovation plan of the Victoria Street property. With this revamp, co-owner Perennial Real Estate Holdings hopes to breathe new life into the 154,063 sq ft site.

The changes are not just physical. Chijmes will also go more upmarket in terms of its tenant mix and events, says Mr Pua Seck Guan, 49, vice-chairman of Perennial.

The company, together with four others - lifestyle product group Osim's chief executive Ron Sim and ex-Kim Eng Holdings chief executive Ronald Ooi, both in their personal capacities; MsGloria Lee through Shun Fung Holdings, a wholly owned family company, and Imagine Properties, a subsidiary of BreadTalk Group - bought the site in October 2011 from Suntec Reit.

Adds Mr Pua: "Given Chijmes' historical nature, we have to be careful not to invite tenants who are not in sync with the concepts that we want to do.

"More than 80 per cent of the current tenants want to stay. Our problem will be to choose tenants who give us a concept that is in line with what we want to do."

The leasable space will be about 114,290 sq ft - an increase of about 43 per cent - once the renovation is completed in the fourth quarter of next year.

Multiply Architects And Engineers are drawing up the plans for Chijmes, while Lighting Planners Associates have been brought in as lighting consultants. ICN Design International will take charge of landscaping.

ICN Design's landscape architect Henry Steed, 65, is back working on Chijmes since its first renovation in 1995. Then, he was also in charge of landscaping the area.

This time, he says, it will be a completely different tack compared to before, when the owners were transforming it from a school to a leisure spot. He is going for a clean look, doing away with the tired-looking lawns and sprucing up the greenery.

Mr Steed, who will be creating European-style courtyards as well as putting in the greenery, says: "This place is for people, not just to be preserved. So we have to make it usable. People are more sophisticated now in accepting that new parts can be added on."

In previous years, Chijmes had drawn flak for hosting parties and taking on establishments such as pubs and clubs that many people felt were not suitable for a former place of worship.

For example, an Escape Chapel Party was planned by events company Creative Insurgence for last year's Easter weekend at the venue. Promotional posters featured women dressed in nuns' habits and the event's Facebook page called it a "sacrilegious night of partying".

The party was cancelled after Catholics here expressed outrage.

To get it right this time, Perennial roped in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) Alumni Association to get its feedback on the new plans.

Changes will include more courtyards and gardens, a sprucing up of the chapel and Caldwell House, more entrances to the complex and a new heritage trail that will show artefacts such as the school bell.

The association's president and ex-convent girl, Dr Claire Ang, 52, says: "They did their homework and the proposal was good. It is now a platform for us to show younger generations where we started. There are questionable establishments that are there but we can't dictate what goes in. But as old girls, we hope that the tenants will respect the history."

Of the new plans, the biggest change will be the lowering of the cloister walls along Victoria Street.

Dr Ang, who was from the class of 1977, says: "We were concerned because the walls gave the place a bit of mystery but people didn't know that it was accessible, so now that will change."

Owners of month-old Club Lava in the basement, which recently brought in China's top nude model Gan Lu Lu for its opening, are not worried about being pushed out after the renovation. In fact, they are excited about the changes, which include the basement being covered up.

A spokesman for the 300-capacity club spot, owned by La Cave Holding, says: "Now when it rains, business is gone. But this will help us. We pitch ourselves to the mid-market and upmarket crowd already, so we are not worried."

Long-time anchor tenant Lei Garden Restaurant is looking forward to the changes as well. The restaurant has been in Chijmes since September 1996.

Founder and chairman Chan Shu Kit, who is in his 70s, calls the proposed changes "a new facelift to the entire Chijmes complex". Singling out the removal of part of the wall along Victoria Street and three new entrances, he adds: "These will give more visibility and accessibility. We envisage that the complex will be more vibrant and inviting."

Mr Pua has high aims for the refurbishment. Currently, Chijmes is ranked 77th out of 288 attractions in Singapore. It is a position that he wants to move up from. "We should be in the top three. I'm confident that it will be something after it's completed and we are very proud of it."

1 European garden setting

Expect to feel like you are wandering through a French courtyard and its manicured lawns (in artist's renderings).

More lush greenery as well as flora will be added to the premises.

Special flower, herb and scent gardens will pay homage to the convent's heritage: the Catholic sisters used to plant flowers and herbs on its grounds.

2 Lowering of cloister walls along Victoria Street

Chijmes will be visible from the street once the renovations are completed. Part of its cloister walls will be lowered and about 80cm of the lower section will remain. The rest will be replaced by metal grilles to match the existing replica iron-wrought main gate. The signature Gate of Hope will remain at its current location. Trees will be planted along the outside of the walls to provide more shelter.

3 See artefacts, tour the place

The owners have workedwith the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) Alumni Association to bring in a changing collection of artefacts from the old convent.

The artefacts are currently housed in a permanent museum at the CHIJ Secondary School in Toa Payoh.

A new historical walking trail of Chijmes will be created to go along with a video that is being commissioned to tell the story of the historical building

4 New entrances

Apart from the main entrance on Victoria Street, Chijmes now has three corner entrances - along Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the last at the junction of both roads. The revamp will create three new entrances along the cloister walls of those roads. The new entrances will have "Historical Portals" with narratives on the walls telling the Chijmes story. They will also be part of the new historical trail.

5 More access to the chapel and Caldwell House, with refurbishments

You can now see the inside of the chapel only if you rent it for an event. The owners plan to open up the chapel to visitors in the future, so that they can tour its interior. The space will also be refurbished with new drapery, a new sound and lighting system, and its stained-glass windows will be cleaned.

Outside the chapel, existing floodlights will be removed in favour of LED lights that will accent parts of the building, making it for perfect pictures come evening.

6 Improved ventilation

Hoping to draw patrons throughout the day, rather than only its regular night-time crowd now, the owners will put in mechanical ventilation in areas such as walkways. Visitors will be protected from the heat and rain. Glass pavilions will be built to house eateries and alfresco dining areas.

7 Removal of cobblestone floor and lifting of the roof

Often a hallmark of pavements from centuries ago, the cobblestones were either set in sand or similar material, or bound together with mortar.

The old cobblestone flooring in Chijmes' driveway, a forecourtand at Caldwell House will be replaced with large black granite pavers to make it more pedestrian-friendly. This is the same material that can be found in other historical sites globally, and will match the heritage settings, say the developers.

The roofs of the current walkways will be raised and replaced with glazed panels, to allow more light through.

There will also be a new, sheltered drop-off area. Currently, cars drive in from Victoria Street and drop passengers anywhere. A new carpark guidance system will be installed in the basement carpark.

8 Sunken courtyard to be covered

Behind the chapel is a big, open space below ground, which houses an open-air area and outdoor seating.

The new plans will see this area being covered up with a glassceiling. The new glass roof can be converted into a stage with protective flooring for performances or serve as a feature pool at other times.

Patrons dining below can be protected from the weather even as they enjoy the daylight dappled by the reflective pool above.

History of Chijmes

From a Catholic girls' school to a cluster of restaurants and nightspots, this historic building has changed a lot since a priest started recruiting teachers to work there in 1851.

Then, Father Jean-Marie Beurel, priest of the Good Shepherd Church, went to France to bring teachers here. A year later, a group of nuns led by Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot arrived in Penang and set up Asia's first Infant Jesus school.

In 1854, Mother Raclot came to Singapore and moved into a house on the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road, known as Caldwell House. The house, part of present-day Chijmes, was made a national monument in 1990. The nuns started lessons for two classes of students soon after their arrival in 1854.

A year later, the convent acquired the house adjacent to Caldwell House and turned it into an orphanage, taking in abandoned children or those from broken homes.

Single mothers often left babies at its side gate, which became known as the "Baby Gate" and the "Gate of Hope".

The convent expanded steadily subsequently as it took on surrounding plots. Eventually, Chijmes - originally known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus - became a self-contained city block bound by Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and Stamford Road.

In 1860, the convent bought land that had belonged to Raffles Institution and, in 1892, built a boarding house on the Stamford Road side of the complex.

When the 35-year-old chapel became too small for the convent's expanding brood of students by 1890, a new Gothic chapel was designed by Father Charles Benedict Nain from Autun in eastern France, who was also a trained architect. The chapel was completed in 1903 and consecrated in June 1904.

Classes were started for Chinese- speaking girls at four bungalows rented from Hotel Van Wijk, adjacent to the convent site. In October 1931, the convent bought the hotel and demolished it, building in its place a new block of classrooms in 1933. It became Victoria Girls' School and, later, StNicholas Girls' School.

The Government took over the land from the convent in 1983 and the schools were allocated a new site in Toa Payoh, while StNicholas Girls' School moved to Ang Mo Kio.

The secondary school building was demolished in 1984 to build the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation headquarters (it was later renamed SMRT Corporation).

The Urban Redevelopment Authority put the site up for sale in March 1990 and gazetted Caldwell House and the chapel as national monuments that year. The entire complex was declared a conservation area with high restoration standards and strict usage guidelines.

The property has changed hands a few times since then. A trio of investors - comprising construction group Low Keng Huat, jeweller Jetaime Investments and the Lei Garden restaurants - bought the site that year for $26.8million.

In 2005, Suntec Reit acquired Chijmes for $128 million. In October 2011, an entity which included Perennial Real Estate Holdings and Osim boss Ron Sim bought it for $177 million.

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