The Arts House (Old Parliament House)
by Koh, Lay Tin
The Arts House (also known as the Old Parliament House) is where the Singapore Parliament used to sit. Located at Empress Place, it was originally built as a residence in 1827. After a series of major alterations and additions, possibly only the arches inside the porch are all that remain of the original building.1 The main building and the annex were gazetted as national monuments on 14 February 1992 and 26 June 1992, respectively. Together, they are now known as The Arts House, an arts venue.2
Constructed between 1826 and 1827, the former Parliament House was originally designed by colonial architect George D. Coleman to be the home of Scottish merchant, John Argyle Maxwell.3 Due to an administrative oversight, Maxwell’s house became possibly the only home in an area designated for government buildings, based on the 1822 Raffles Town Plan. However, it was never used as a residential building.4
In June 1827, Maxwell rented the building to the government for use as a courthouse. It was then sold to George Gerald Larpent and John Cockrell on 1 September 1829.5 Additions were made to the building in 1839, including a single-storey extension that served as the new courthouse, while the front portion was occupied by public offices. In 1841, the East India Company purchased the building for 15,600 Spanish dollars.6
In 1847, the courthouse extension was enlarged to accommodate the Recorder, jurors and prisoners.7 The courthouse was later considered unsuitable as a court of justice, mainly because of the noise from the boatyard and blacksmith shop nearby. The courthouse moved out in 1865.8
Extensions were made to the structure in 1875, 1901 and 1909. The buildings were eventually transformed, architecturally, from the Palladian style to Victorian.9
Additions made in 1875 included a long extension built along the Singapore River by colonial architect J. F. A. McNair. The main building then served as the Supreme Court until 1939, when the Supreme Court building was completed. Thereafter, Coleman’s building served as a government storehouse and as the office of the Department of Social Welfare, before becoming semi-derelict. Renovations began in 1953 to restore the building for use by the Legislative Assembly, and the new Legislative Assembly House was opened in July 1954 by then Governor John Nicoll.10
On 5 June 1959, the building became known as the Parliament House, when the People’s Action Party became the ruling party of a self-governing Singapore.11 The first parliamentary session was opened by then President Yusof bin Ishak on 8 December 1965.12 The building served as the Parliament House until 1999.13 With the opening of the new Parliament House at 1 Parliament Place in October 1999, Coleman’s building became known as the Old Parliament House.14
On 26 March 2004, the Old Parliament House was reopened as The Arts House, a venue for the performing and visual arts.15 Renovations costing S$15 million saw the conversion of the building into an entertainment space and a 75-seat film theatrette, among other changes. The most historical space, the “crown jewel” of The Arts House, is the 150-seat concert chamber known as The Chamber.16 It is home to concert recitals, film screenings and art exhibitions.17
Along with the refurbishment of the main building, the annex (previously the courthouse) was also spruced up and now houses a restaurant.18 The renovations garnered the Old Parliament House a prize in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Architectural Heritage Awards 2004 for its unique transformation whilst retaining its original charm.19
1819: The site of the building is occupied by the temenggong of Johor and his followers.20
1827: The two-storey mansion is completed. It is used as the first courthouse until 1865, when a new court building is constructed.
1841: The government buys the building in an auction. It is used as a courthouse and then as public offices. It houses the Supreme Court until 1939. After World War II, it continues to be used by different government departments.21
1875: The court returns to the building. After renovations, it is turned into the Supreme Court.
1939: Serves as a government storehouse and offices for the Department of Social Welfare, with the completion of the new Supreme Court building.
1953: Renovations begin to restore the building to be the new Legislative Assembly.
1954: Renamed Legislative Assembly House, it is opened by Governor John Nicoll on 7 July.
1965: Renamed Parliament of Singapore.
1965–99: Serves as Parliament House.22
2004: Former Parliament House reopens as The Arts House, a multidisciplinary arts centre.
Koh Lay Tin
1. Doggett, M. (1957). Characters of light: [A guide to the buildings of Singapore]. Singapore: Donald Moore, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 722.4095957 DOG)
2. Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. Subsidiary legislation supplement. Preservation of Monuments (No. 2) Order 1992 (S 313/92). Singapore: [s.n.], pp. 967–968. (Call no.: RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS); Chong, V. (2004, October 13). Old Parliament House, 4 others win heritage awards. The Business Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 3–4. (Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
4. Tan, S. (2000). The Singapore Parliament: The house we built. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 75. (Call no.: RSING q328.5957 TAN)
5. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interests. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
6. Hall-Jones, J. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 925 THO); Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
7. Singapore’s buildings, our heritage. (1985). Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr., 25. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
8. The Arts House. (n.d.). History. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from The Arts House website: https://www.theartshouse.sg/about-us/history/; Singapore’s buildings, our heritage. (1985). Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr., 25. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
9. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interests. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
10. Tan, S. (2000). The Singapore Parliament: The house we built. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 66. (Call no.: RSING q328.5957 TAN)
11. Facelift for oldest building ‘a winner’. (2004, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Tan, S. (2000). The Singapore Parliament: The house we built. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 75. (Call no.: RSING q328.5957 TAN)
13. Facelift for oldest building ‘a winner’. (2004, October 13). The Straits Times. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Ng, I. (1999, August 29). The day to move House. The Straits Times, p. 3; Siti Andrianie. (1999, October 5). New Parliament House opens. The Straits Times, p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Tan, S. E. (2004, March 27). House’s part comes alive as arts centre opens. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Cheah, U-H. (2003, October 17). A seat for the arts. The Business Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Parliament building. (2006, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Cheah, U.-H. (2003, October 17). A seat for the arts. The Business Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Chong, V. (2004, October 13). Old Parliament House, 4 others win heritage awards. The Business Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. The historic move. (1999, September 7). The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. From Raffles to Nicoll. (1954, July 21). The Singapore Free Press, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. National Heritage Board, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and The Arts House. (2016, March 23). Launch of the Parliament in Singapore History Exhibition and Parliamentarians’ Remembrance Ceremony for Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew [Media release]. Retrieved 2016, September 27 from National Heritage Board website: http://www.nhb.gov.sg/~/media/nhb/files/media/releases/new%20releases/media%20release%20launch%20of%20the%20parliament%20in%20singapore%20history%20exhibition%20and%20parliamentarians%20remembrance%20ceremony%20for%20mr%20lee%20kuan%20yew%2023%20march.pdf
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 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.
Law and government>>Public administration>>Parliament
Architecture, British colonial--Singapore
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Civic and Administrative Buildings
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings