Former St Joseph’s Institution (Singapore Art Museum)



The former St Joseph’s Institution building was established in 1867 and served as a boys’ school for a number of years. Bound by Queen Street, Bras Basah Road and Waterloo Street, the school consisted of a cluster of buildings built between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century in a classical style reminiscent of the European Renaissance. The school moved to its current location at Malcolm Road in 1987. The old building was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992, and now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

Early years
The St Joseph’s Institution building began with Father Jean-Marie Beurel, who was instrumental in raising funds not only for this boys’ school but also for the Church of the Good Shepherd (now known as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (now known as CHIJMES). After establishing the church in 1847, he raised monies for its adornment as well as for the boys’ school. He felt strongly that “a church without a school is like a King without progeny".

In May 1852, Father Beurel’s hopes for a school were fulfilled when it was opened at the site of the first Roman Catholic chapel that had been built in 1833. The foundation stone for the school building was laid on 19 March 1855 at Bras Basah Road, but a continual lack of funds meant that the building was established only in 1867.

Brother Lothaire Combes was appointed the new director of the school in 1863. He sought to finish the school building and obtained funding through the sales of the Brothers’ property on Mount Sophia, through a public appeal, and by borrowing from the convent. He even managed to obtain the support of the government, which offered bricks for sale at cost price, although nothing came of this as the supply of bricks was eventually used up for the building of the Istana.

Irish-American Brother Michael Noctor took charge of the school in 1900 and is credited with some of the more distinctive features of the school. He continued to seek funding for the school building and, with the help of Father Charles-Benedict Nain, extended the original building by adding two wings, a dome and various other features for which the building remains well known today. Even as the main block was rebuilt, classes continued to overflow and Brother Noctor made further efforts to build another block known as Anderson Building, which opened in 1907. The Hall and Chapel above it were completed in September 1912. The dedication service at the Chapel in November 1912 marked the Diamond Jubilee of the founding of the school.

Central block
The building’s central structure dates back to the mid-19th century. Brother Combes is credited with its design, which is typical of French 19th-century religious architecture, with classical elements especially in its façade. It was a rectangular two-storey block with a pitched roof and a small belfry that was later replaced by a dome at the turn of the 20th century. When completed in 1867, the ground floor of the block included classrooms and the parlour while the upper floor served as accommodation for the Brothers and boarding for about 60 students. The hall was an open shed located in the yard that was unpaved ground with shade from a few trees.

Brother Noctor further developed the structure with the addition of a dining and study hall on the Queen Street side of the compound. Rising enrolments meant that new classrooms were required. Brother Michael’s perseverance led to government funding. However, after consultation with the architecture firm of Messrs Swan & McLaren, plans to build a third floor were abandoned and lateral extensions were made instead with the addition of two wings. Arranged in a semi-circle, the wings were designed by Father Nain in a Baroque style, with a two-storey colonnade and a dome uniting the design with the original block. Dedicated in February 1903, the new building was regarded at the time as one of the most beautiful in the East. It also had a porte-cochere (coach port) and a verandah at the front of the block, with the back verandah added in 1910.

Anderson Building
Opened on 2 August 1907, the building was designed by Robert Hamilton in a Classical style. Although Brother Noctor had managed to raise funds especially from the wealthy Straits Chinese businessman Tan Jiak Kim, the cost of steel had risen so much that the cost of the building rose by $12,000. An appeal to Governor John Anderson led to added government grants and so the building, which was opened by the governor, was named after him. It housed classrooms for the rapidly expanding school, and had a central staircase that projected into the courtyard.

Chapel Building
With the completion of Anderson Building, Brother Michael set about building a new hall and chapel. The two-storey block, designed by C. Himsley, had a hall with arches on the ground floor and the chapel above it. The hall, named St. George’s Hall, was designed as a loggia with columns and it came to be one of the largest school halls in Singapore. In later years, the hall became a gymnasium, then the school hall in the 1950s.

The completion of the chapel was delayed because its stained glass did not arrive on time from Europe. It was dedicated in 1912. In 1940, a stage and changing rooms were added to the hall below. During the Japanese Occupation, the beautiful stained glass was removed to Sts Peter’s and Paul’s Church but was never recovered thereafter. In 1951, the arches were enclosed, giving it a flattened look.
Brothers’ Quarters
In the 1930s, a three-storey block in Art Deco style was added to house the Brothers and offer more classroom space. It had brick walls and circular windows by the staircase.

Statue of de La Salle
The school is well known for its statue of St John Baptist de La Salle, standing with a child on either side. This was donated in 1913 by a descendant of de La Salle who had been resident in Singapore. Designed by the famous 19th-century sculptor of religious statues, Cesare Aureli, the design is based on a larger version found in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The cast-iron statue was nicknamed “the three dolls”. Because the statue  seemed to be pointing in the direction of St Andrew’s School, which was located across the field at the time, the inhouse joke was that the founder was directing graduates of St Joseph’s to proceed to St Andrews’s since the Brothers could do no more for its students.

Japanese Occupation
During World War II, the school grounds were used by both the British and Japanese at different times. Prior to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the British had used it for military casualties while the Japanese used it as temporary barracks when they invaded Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation, the school was known as the Bras Basah Road Boys’ School.

Relocation and conservation
St Joseph’s Institution relocated to Malcolm Road in December 1987. The original building underwent extensive conservation work at a cost of S$30 million and was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992 before reopening on 20 January 1996 as the Singapore Art Museum.

During the conservation process, the Central block, Anderson Building and Chapel building were retained while the Brothers’ quarters, the Badminton Hall and the ECA building were demolished. The central staircase in the courtyard that had fallen into disrepair had been replaced with two modern staircases in 1950, but these were removed during the conservation process.

Conservation work sought to retain as much of the original details as possible, including the plasterwork of the façade at the main entrance, the roof patina, and roof and floor tiles. Using creative solutions, conservators and architects were able to meet the complicated process of remaining true to the building’s original structure while adapting it to the stringent requirements of an art museum. The museum has 13 galleries, all climate-controlled, as well as an underground storage space below the wing at Queen Street. The Chapel is now known as the Auditorium while the Hall below it is the Glass Hall.

When St Joseph’s Institution moved to its current location in 1987, the statue of de La Salle remained at the Singapore Art Museum while a replica of the statue produced in China was installed at the new school in March 1988.

Bonny Tan

Brown, F. (1987). Memories of SJI: Reminiscences of old boys and past teachers of St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore. Singapore: The St Joseph’s Institution.
(Call no.: SING 372.95957 BRO)

Edwards, N. & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (pp. 273 – 274). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: SING 915.957 EDW)

Gascon, G. (1995, October 25). From school to museum: Architect's labour of love. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Hedwig, Alfred. (2002). Living the mission: The SJI story, 1852-2002. Singapore: Archipelago Press.
(Call no.: SING q373.5957 ALF)

The former St Joseph’s Institution preservation guidelines (Vol. 1). (1992). Singapore: The Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 FOR)

The priest whose vision gave birth to SJI. (1989, April 8). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

The Singapore Art Museum. (1995). Singapore: Trade Link Media.
(Call no.: RSING 727.7095957 SIN)

Work to convert old SJI into fine arts museum to begin soon. (1992, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Further readings
Preservation of Monuments Board. (2010). Former St Joseph’s Institution (now Singapore Art Museum). Retrieved November 4, 2010, from

Statue sculpted in China gets pride of place at new SJI. (1988, March 20). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Wan, M. H. (2009). Heritage places of Singapore (pp. 108-109). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Art museums--Singapore
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Museum buildings--Singapore
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