House Proud

Well, we hope so. This house on 23 Amber Road in the East Coast is almost a hundred years old and is one of the very few original seaside bungalows left in the area. Designed by R. A. J. Bidwell in 1912, the same architect who designed gazetted buildings Goodwood Park Hotel, Raffles Hotel and Victoria Concert Hall, this house is the only residence that Bidwell created in the crescent style. Under current threat of demolition by owner, Goodland Development, for the construction of a condominium, this one-of-a-kind house may be facing its last days.
But not if conservation activists HARP can help it. HARP stands for Historic Architecture Rescue Plan, and is a group of people who call themselves Rescuers, who work to increase an awareness of “noteworthy buildings which may be in danger of demolition and deserve conservation.”
The Campaign Trail
Since Nov last year, HARP has been raising awareness of 23 Amber Road—by distributing fliers, setting up a website
(www.irenelow.com), and encouraging the public to write a letter to various authorities, including the MP of Marine Parade, the constituency in which the property is located, the Ministry of National Development and the owners of the building.
We asked Helen Khoo of HARP what the response has been. “Enough petition letters have gone out to surprise HARP,” she says. A poll has also been set up by HARP asking what people think should be done to save this house, such as turning it into boutique flats, taking it apart and recreating it somewhere else as a garden folly. A number of votes have been garnered so far that run the whole gamut of emotions, which shows that people are interested in this building and feel strongly about it.”
(To join the poll, go to www.irenelow.com, select “News” and look for “Poll: How should historic buildings be preserved?” Registration required.) Terence Hong of HARP says that people have sent in emails lending help and support.
The Minister of National Development, Mah Bow Tan, has also received several impassioned petition letters. Colin Lauw, Senior Public Relations Officer for Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the government organization largely responsible for the conservation of buildings and which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Development, says that URA is heartened and encouraged to see that people care so much, and “is listening to the ongoing discussion.”
People Power?
And how much of a difference has or will all this make? Especially in a society known more for its top-down approach than for grassroots influence?
URA is supportive of the cause to save the house, but so far is not making any concrete move to save it. 23 Amber Road is not on URA’s conservation list, and the URA is leaving it to Goodland Development to voluntarily list the property which would immediately protect it—but given Goodland’s plan to build a condo on the site, this is unlikely. The site is small and the developer will not be able to build around the house, so listing it would instantly put an end to any plans for a condo. URA is also open to any other suggestions that the owner or anyone else might have, but wants to follow rather than take the lead in this. Goodland declined to comment.
URA maintains that it is in a dilemma. It is torn between conserving the house and not imposing anything on the owner that might result in a loss of economic value. Hence it is leaving the final decision in the hands of the private developer. While this stance may be far from ideal, it is actually a softening on URA’s part. Khoo says, “In the beginning they said that there was not much potential in this site. Now—they welcome the owner to discuss alternatives that are commercially viable, but that will allow the house to stay.”
Other people are sitting up and taking notice too. According to Khoo, “On the opening of the legal year recently, a HARP supporter who was present went up to the Registrar of State Land and asked about this matter. The Registrar admitted that the pressure was on to save 23 Amber Road. That’s awareness at a high level.”
Ways Out
There was one solution. The plot next to 23 Amber Road was up for sale (nos. 25-27). Behind that is a plot of state land. If Goodland bought nos. 25-27, they would have been entitled to buy the adjacent state land which would have made a plot large enough for a condo to be built around the house, thus preserving it. Until Jan 10 this was an option, but as of that date nos. 25-27 were sold to Far East Organisation. “Where does this leave 23 Amber Road?” asked Khoo. “In imminent danger of demolition, I fear.”
One last hope remains. A third party could step in and take over 23 Amber Road from Goodland, an angel from the private sector who buys the house with the intention of conserving it. URA is more than open to this. But it is not making the first move, and waiting—in the off chance—for someone to come forward.
Race Against Time
We do not now how much time this precious house has left. HARP’s Hong said that he saw what he interpreted to be signs of impending destruction when he last visited the house—prayer objects and offerings that he thinks are used in a building’s last rites. HARP is monitoring the situation very carefully.
While there is time left, this is a chance for us not only to help save one of Singapore’s historically valuable buildings but also to be part of citizenry action. And maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference.
Send This Letter
If you care enough to want to help save 23 Amber Road, here is a letter, drafted by HARP, that we encourage you to send.
Dear ________,
I believe that the house at 23 Amber Road should not be demolished, but should be preserved for future generations.
A moratorium should be put on the demolition of the house to allow time for the URA to reconsider giving conservation status to the building.
23 Amber Road is unique because of its age, its style and its historical and architectural interest. The number of historical houses is finite, and once a house is gone it is gone forever.
I believe that Singapore and Singaporeans benefit directly from the preservation of our heritage. 23 Amber Road should be preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
Yours sincerely,
[your name]
Send this letter to:
• The developer and owner of 23 Amber Road:
Goodland Development Pte Ltd / AG Capital Pte Ltd
18 Roberts Lane, #02-01/02 Goodland Building
Singapore 218297 Phone: 6289-0003, Fax: 6289-3818
email: goodland@goodlandgroup.com.sg
The MP for Marine Parade, SM Goh Chok Tong MP
email: goh_chok_tong@pmo.gov.sg
The Minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan
email: mah_bow_tan@mnd.gov.sg
The Urban Redevelopment Authority, Conservation Department’s Kelvin Ang
email: Kelvin_ANG@ura.gov.sg
• The MP for your constituency, email address obtainable at www.parliament.gov.sg