Former Supreme Court building

The former Supreme Court building was the seat of Singapore’s highest court from 1939 to 2005.1 It was located at St Andrew’s Road in an area spanning 5,110 sq m.Conceptualised by Frank Dorrington Ward, it was the last classical building constructed in Singapore between 1937 and 1939.2 The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1992.3 Restored together with the adjacent City Hall building, with connecting bridges and a rooftop canopy, to become the National Art Gallery, it has since opened in 2015 as the National Gallery Singapore.4

The building sits on the site of the former house of James Clarke of Guthrie and Company Ltd, and later that of Edward Boustead, founder of Boustead and Company.5 Boustead’s house, built in 1823, was then remodelled to serve as the London Hotel. Subsequently, it was renamed Hotel de l'Esperance and thereafter Hotel de l’Europe. The hotel was demolished in 1900 and rebuilt as the Grand Hotel de l’Europe (completed in 1905), otherwise known as the Adis Building after its owner.6 It was demolished in 1934 to make way for the then Supreme Court Building.7

In 1935, the government acquired the 76,344 sq ft of the hotel site for a new Supreme Court building.8 Modelled after the Old Bailey in London, the building was designed by Ward, then chief architect of the Public Works Department, in his typical classical style.9 It was built by United Engineers at a cost of $1,750,000.10 The foundation stone of the building was laid on 1 April 1937, and to commemorate the event, a time capsule cylinder was placed beneath it. At a ceremony on 3 August 1939, the building was declared officially open by Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas, and handed over to Chief Justice Sir Percy McElwaine.11 The time capsule contains six Singapore newspapers dated 31 March 1937, and currency from the Straits Settlements. It is to be retrieved in the year 3000 with the smashing of the foundation stone.12

The building was the site of war crime trials of members of the Japanese military in 1946.13

Gazetting and conversion
In recognition of its architectural significance, the former Supreme Court building was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992.14 It was vacated in 2005 with the opening of a new Supreme Court building located behind it, and subsequently used for occasions such as the Singapore Biennale 2006. Slated to be converted into the National Art Gallery, Singapore, a design competition was launched in February 2007 to select a design concept for its new identity.15 In May 2008, based on their design proposal, French firm Studio Milou Architecture and local engineers CPG Consultants were appointed the principal consultants for the project.16

In January 2011, a ground-breaking ceremony marked the beginning of restoration and construction works to refurbish and link the old Supreme Court building and the City Hall building next to it. The cost of the project was initially estimated at S$320 million, but was revised to S$530 million in December 2010.17

The building previously contained five courtrooms, a Court of Appeal, a library, a registry and offices.18 Its intricate Corinthian sculpture, columns and facings are the work of Italian artist Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose sculptures can also be seen at Raffles Hotel and the King Edward VII College of Medicine building.19 The imposing building is complemented by two sets of Ionic columns on either side of the front porch.20 The building is topped by a distinctive rotunda, beneath which sits the library furnished with carved furniture designed by William Swaffield. Inside the building, the corridors are laid with Art Deco rubber tiles.21

Vernon Cornelius & Joanna HS Tan

1. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 71. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU); Kwek, Mean Luck, et al. eds., Hall of Justice: Supreme Court Singapore (Singapore: Supreme Court, Republic of Singapore, 2006), 106, 110. (Call no. RSING q347.5957035 HAL)
2. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 375. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Marjorie Doggett, Characters of Light (Singapore: Times Books International, 1985), 4. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 DOG)
3. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 71.
4. Clarissa Tan, “A Supreme Makeover,” Business Times, 10 September 2010, 10; Helmi Yusof, “PM Lee Unveils S$532m National Gallery,” Business Times, 24 November 2015, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Singapore’s Buildings, Our Heritage,” Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr., 25. (Call no. RSING 052 GHCGJ)
6. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 375.
7. Ray K. Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 42. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
8. “1,340 Acres for RAF,” Straits Times, 25 May 1936, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Uniteers Get New Supreme Court Contract,” Straits Times, 19 January 1937, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Colony Cavalcade,” Straits Times, 4 April 1937, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Supreme Court Singapore, Ceremonial Opening of the New Supreme Court Building, Singapore, by His Excellency Sir Shenton Thomas, Thursday, 3rd August 1939 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1939) (Call no. RSING 725.11095957 SIN); “Dignified Pageantry at Opening of New Supreme Court,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 4 August 1939, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Tan, “Supreme Makeover”; “History,” The National Gallery Singapore, accessed 12 October 2016.
13. Tan, “Supreme Makeover.”
14. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 71.
15. National Gallery Singapore, “Singapore Launches Architectural Design Competition for a New National Art Gallery,” media release, 22 February 2007.
16. National Gallery Singapore, “Appointment of Architect for Singapore’s National Art Gallery,” media release, 28 May 2008.
17. Deepika Shetty, “Concern over Higher Art Gallery Cost,” Straits Times, 23 December 2010, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Supreme Court to Be Chief Feature of Singapore’s New Civic Centre,” Straits Times, 2 April 1937, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Thian Yee Sze, Chong Chin Chin and Sharon Lim, eds., In Session: Supreme Court Singapore: The Building, Her Heritage and Her People (Singapore: Supreme Court, 2002), 32. (Call no. RSING 347.5957035 IN)
20. “Singapore’s Buildings, Our Heritage,” 25.
21. Thian, Chong and Lim, Supreme Court Singapore, 42, 48.

Further resources
Former Supreme Court,” National Heritage Board, accessed 25 October 2010.

G. Uma Devi, Resonance: Songs of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2009), 86–92. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 RES)

Governor Hands Over New Court to Chief Justice,” Straits Times, 4 August 1939, 20. (From NewspaperSG)

Joseph R. Yogerst, Singapore: State of the Art (Singapore: R. I. Lloyd Productions, 1990), 87. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LLO-[HIS])

Marjorie Doggett, Characters of Light (Singapore: Times Books International, 1985), 4–5. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 DOG)

Supreme Court Supplement,” Straits Times, 2 August 1939, i–viii. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to 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.


Public buildings
Appellate courts--Singapore
Historic buildings--Singapore
Architecture, British colonial--Singapore