The oldest of the three conserved buildings is the Olson Building of Methodist Girls’ School, built in 1928 to the design of prominent English architect, Frank Wilmin Brewer. It was originally called Cambridge Building and housed six classrooms catered for students taking the Cambridge examinations. From 2007 to 2012, the two-storey structure was used as offices of the art enclave ‘Old School’.
Characteristic architectural elements to look out for include the building’s French windows, timber shutters, lattice lights and louvered terracotta parapet vents.
Nan Hwa Girls’ School was designed by architectural practice Chung & Wong and was completed in 1941. As a modern Chinese school, the three storey building displayed aesthetic influences from Art Deco. It was finished in textured cement render, with two symmetrical pitched-roof wings for classrooms, and a projecting portico in the centre.
Notable architectural features include the precast wall vents and toplight lattice used in various combinations with windows, as well as the sleek cantilevered horizontal sunshading fins that go around the perimeter of the building on the 2nd & 3rd storey.
Trinity Theological College Chapel was designed by Edwin Chan Kui Chuan. Completed in 1969, the building had been an exemplar of mature tropical church design.
The chapel boasts a modern tropical design replete with religious symbolism in its form, layout, and ornamentation. The sculptural roof form was derived from the Chinese character ‘人’ , stand for ‘man’. The column free space beneath the sweeping roof planes used to accommodate a 150-strong congregation.
Look out for the chapel’s stained glass’ features, which are in fact not made of traditional stained glass with lead beadings, but plexiglass panels. This was a progressive and experimental material choice at the time; unfortunately the material does not age well and the feature has to be replicated in more permanent materials.
In Greek, sophia means wisdom. It is a beautiful coincidence that Mount Sophia should be home to so many notable schools and institutions of learning through its history.
Three old buildings — two built before the war, one in the 1960s — of three different institutions stand on very the site of Sophia Hills. They are the Olson Building of the old campus of the Methodist Girls’ School, the former Nan Hwa Girls’ School, and the former Trinity Theological College Chapel.
Slated for conservation by the URA in August 2011, all three buildings bear distinctive historical value. To preserve the architectural heritage of these landmarks, conservation specialists Studio Lapis was engaged to provide consultancy service for the study, addition and alteration, and integration of the buildings into the premises of Sophia Hills.
Tan Kar Lin, a partner at Studio Lapis, shares that proper conservation work involves the study of buildings in their entirety. Restoration should be considered for both within and without the structure. Tan shares, ‘While the exterior of a historic building may be its most prominent aspect, or its “public face”, heritage interiors effectively immerse visitors in the building’s history. Unlike interior décor of today, architectural interiors of historic buildings were conceived as an integral part of the building design and character. Important elements include architectural features such as staircases, columns, beams, and openings, and the various finishes and materials that make up walls, floors and ceilings.’
Tan also points out that the ambience and character of historic architectural interiors reflect the fine craftsmanship by tradesmen of a past era — something worth careful conservation: ‘These are often not replicable as many building materials are out of production, while skill traditions and workmanship have declined. These original features are distinctive markers of the buildings’ architectural and historical pedigree. The material palette of a bygone era impart colour, texture, and patterns, bringing forth vivid imageries and memories.’
Before me, four generations of women in my family went to the Methodist Girls’ School. Just like them, I spent ten years on the Mount Sophia campus. It’s amazing. A decade in the school, but with a lifetime’s worth of memories etched into my heart for eternity.
My primary three classroom was on the top floor of the Olson Building while construction of the new primary school building was ongoing. My most vivid memory of the early days spent there was the music room where we learnt how to play the recorder — without much success! Later on, when I was in secondary school, I continued to attend classes there although my own classroom was in a different wing. I enjoyed going to the Olson Building because it was the only part of the school which was air-conditioned. It housed the language laboratory and we would trek there for our Listening Comprehension sessions during select English lessons. The building was a welcome haven from the warm afternoons and an opportunity for us ‘Monkey Girls’ to while away a good part of the lesson in cool comfort. Many of my classmates still recall having to listen to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles and transcribing its lyrics in our English class.
Built in the 1920s, the Olson Building has weathered the storms of Singapore’s turbulent beginnings, watched the nation and school struggle and grow, and celebrated successes that only perseverance and hard work can produce. Through our school history, the building has been an MGS landmark, and, like a second home, it has sheltered generations of us. To me, the Olson Building is like a typical MGS girl — empowered and resilient, yet nurturing and warm.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve MGS as both the Head Prefect and the President of the Literary, Drama and Debating Society and spent many hours after school on campus. The clock tower was always fun for us to spook one another with stories of the ‘underworld’. The backstage of the school hall was my favourite. All the props from school productions were kept there. The dressing mirrors were ideal for budding actresses to preen in front of, and for ambitious debaters to practise their arguments with their reflections.
The corridors behind the secondary school block were also the best places to just hide from the rest of the world and to enjoy the after-school breeze. The back side of the Olson Building had a rather steep slope which was the delight of any self-respecting MGS girl. Long before school traffic rules were enforced, many of us spent happy moments running up and down the slope risking life and limb while waiting for our after-school transport. So yes, very fond memories filled with much laughter.
MGS to me is not just a school. It’s my family. My maternal great, great grandmother, Siauw Mah Li, was the first Chinese girl to attend MGS. Her daughter, Darling Kim Neo and her sisters, Susie Gin Neo and Edna Gek Neo, all attended the school too. Darling’s daughter, Happy, is my maternal grandmother. At ninety-one years old, she is among some of the oldest living MGS alumnae. My mother recently celebrated her fiftieth year MGS reunion with many of her friends she has known since Primary One. My aunts are all proud MGS alumnae and after all these years, we still call ourselves ‘MGS girls’ ...
There are many favourite stories we love to tell in the family. The most significant one, for me, is the one my grandmother Happy tells of how she was named by Miss Sophia Blackmore, the founder of MGS. Her mother, Darling, who was a former Nind Home resident and MGS alumna, had returned to Mt Sophia to visit Miss Blackmore. She was expectant and asked Miss Blackmore for advice on naming the baby. Miss Blackmore said, ‘Boy or Girl, name him or her “Happy”’. And so she did. I feel extremely fortunate to be part of a family that takes great pride in our MGS heritage. My daughter will be the sixth generation of us to attend MGS when she enters Primary One in 2015 and I cannot wait to see her in the iconic ‘sailor-girl’ uniform. Although she will attend MGS on a different campus, the ‘MGSpirit’ will live on in her and our MGS story will come full-circle once more. May she too, learn To Master, To Grow and To Serve’.