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Former Beach Road Camp

History
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ABOUT

The former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) NCO Club, Blocks 1 and 14 of the old Beach Road Camp have created a distinctive stretch of road with historical military and police buildings. These buildings help to tie the site of the old colonial government buildings around Empress Place and the Padang through to the Raffles Hotel (National Monument) to the surrounding historic urban fabric of Purvis and Liang Seah Streets (Beach Road Conservation Area) where traditional shophouses (circa 1910-20s) have been conserved.

THE HISTORY

Beach Road, as the name implies, was the original seafront prior to reclamation. In the early 1800s, as part of Singapore’s first Town Plan, Sir Stamford Raffles designated the area around it as the European Town. Its sea-frontage made it the main European residential area as well as that of the wealthy Asians and it became known as ‘The row of 20 houses’. In the 1860s, when the area became overcrowded as the settlement prospered, many of the houses along the road were converted into hotels and boarding houses to meet the demand of a growing population. The road remained on the seafront until the 1870s and 1880s and during these periods, the area soon ceased to be a fashionable residential area. The land was later reclaimed over several phases, starting from about the 1900s for the construction of Beach Road Camp and later on, the Nicoll Highway. The final major stage of reclamation was carried out in the 1970s.

Within the Beach Road area, there are the Raffles Hotel which was gazetted a national monument in 1987 and the two- and three-storey shophouses within the Beach Road Conservation Area which were gazetted in October 1991.

THE BUILDING

Former Non-Commissioned Officers’ Club

The building, known to many Singaporeans as the Former NCO Club, was first built in 1952-53 as the Britannia Club (also known as the NAAFI - Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) to serve as the place of recreation of the ‘Other Ranks’ of the British Armed Forces. It was designed by architecture firm, Palmer & Turner, who also built many landmark buildings around the region. The building contained one of the earliest Olympic-sized swimming pools, paid for by the Nuffield Trust, a British charity that promotes healthy living. Until 1972, the building was used by ANZUK (Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom Forces) soldiers and their families. With the withdrawal of British Armed Forces from Singapore, the building was returned to an independent Singapore. It was then inaugurated as the SAF NCO Club on 17 March 1974. This was also where the first SAFE (Singapore Armed Forces Enterprise) store was set up and the club was well used by many NS men over the years.

The Former NCO Club is a reinforced concrete construction, whose architectural style is a hybrid of Art Deco and Modern Style. There is extensive use of terracotta wall tiles that simulate fair-faced brickwork, while the windows have concrete surrounds expressed as geometric shapes. The base of the building is treated in a mix of travertine marble cladding, and granite blocks in random coursing. The eye-catching pitched roof is clad using green-blue glazed tiles that form a pleasing contrast with the brick façade. The natural colours of the building materials were incorporated as part of the colour scheme, and give a homely feel that is different from the rest of the more institutional Military buildings of the site.

This creates a clear distinction between the top, body and the base of the building.

The building features asymmetrical composition of the façade with interlocking rectangular volumes. The solidness of the Beach Road façade is enlivened with protruding thin concrete ledges and long continuous horizontal bands of windows of slender mild-steel profiles. As part of its tropical design, the building has a huge gable roof and recessed windows. The rear verandah was constructed in thin barrel-vaulted reinforced concrete that forms a pleasing counterpoint of curves.

Within the building is a meeting hall that is lit using well-proportioned recessed vertical windows on upper floors. The interior of the hall features the use of coloured marble planning that is typical of the period. Other notable details include a screen of mild-steel and copper grilles at the rear verandah.

Blocks 1, 9 & 14, Former Beach Road Camp

The Singapore Volunteer Rifles Corps (SVR) and Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) were first formed at Beach Road Camp. This historic site was first used for military purposes when a wooden building was constructed in 1907 to house the Chinese unit of the SVC. Prior to this move, the SVC was located at Fort Fullerton, south of Singapore River. The SVC later on also included units of other ethnicities.  The SVC played an important role in maintaining the security of the Colony, and were involved in putting down the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915, resistance to the Japanese invasion, and later on, the Indonesian Confrontation/Konfrantasi of the 1960s. The SVR and SVC were the forerunners of the People’s Defence Force, which itself was the origins of the modern Singapore Armed Forces.  Thus this camp is considered as home to the volunteer movement and of the SAF.

The camp was used as a recruitment, training and mobilisation centre and can be said to be the focus of early ideas of patriotism to Singapore as a settlement. There is a memorial plaque at the base of Block 9 that was specially inaugurated in 21 December 1950 to honour and remember those who died during the Second World War. A remembrance ceremony is held in front of this plaque each year, on Remembrance Sunday.

The camp was also the venue for the first National Service enlistment in 1967 and housed the first batch of the SAF Training Institute officers. It is accepted as the birthplace of the Singapore Armed Forces. The SAF, in particular, the 2nd People’s Defence Force (2PDF) occupied the Camp until 1997, when it moved to Clementi Camp. During the move, a pair of original historic gates was also moved to the Force’s new home. The SAF finally closed the camp and handed it back to the State in 2000.

The current set of 3 conserved buildings was built in the 1930s. The blocks are built in a hybrid of Art Deco and Neo-Classical styles. The close spacing of the pilasters at the centre of the block emphasises the main entrance and are distinct features of Blocks 1 and 14. The main entrance is further elaborated as a rusticated arch opening.  Block 1 has a unique triple arched entrance, unique circular fanlights and timber louvred windows that are unique with their asymmetrical façade design. The asymmetry of the façade is apparently due to it originally being two buildings that were later made into one building through the construction of the central archway to unify both buildings.

The main focus of this historic site is Block 9, the former Drill Hall. It is designed to create a visual terminus to nearby Seah Street, in addition to being the main functional and symbolic gathering point for the camp’s users. The building is of brick and reinforced concrete and is one of the innovative buildings of its era, in particular, the use of curved reinforced concrete arches in the double height hall, and the creation of a ‘drill hall’ at the second level of the building. The arches create a distinctive internal space, and high level windows and vents allow for natural ventilation. The design is very similar to the Lawrence Hall (built 1925-28) that is part of the Royal Horticultural Hall complex (London, UK) of the same period. In Singapore, the conserved old Library/Hall of the former Victoria School at King George’s Avenue (built 1933) also has a similar design.

THE LEGACY

As a result of greater public interest in the conservation of more modern buildings in Singapore as well as landmarks of social and community history, the Urban Redevelopment Authority set up the Conservation Advisory Panel in June 2002 to provide more public input and participation on its building conservation programme. The former NCO Club and Blocks 1, 9, 14 of the former Beach Road Camp - were among the first set of buildings that the panel evaluated and recommended for conservation. 

The conservation of these buildings has helped to retain the identity of the area and create a distinctive streetscape along the stretch of Beach Road from the Gateway Towers to War Memorial Park. The buildings mark the architectural evolution of Military buildings in Singapore, and more importantly, they are testament to the turbulent political events of the early 20th century in Singapore that led to the eventual independence of our country. The buildings also are reminders of the history of the sacrifice that many have made in the course of protecting our land.

Gazetted for conservation on 9 October 2002.

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