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Singapore History: The story of the Fullerton Building


As a member of the Singapore Memory Project, Sunanda Verma recently had the opportunity of taking a detailed tour of one of Singapore’s most iconic buildings and discovering some of its history.

“This building is, and will be for many years, one of the principal landmarks of Singapore,” said Governor Sir Hugh Clifford at the opening of Fullerton Building on 27 June 1928.

He was right. Celebrating its 85th birthday this month, the Fullerton Building still stands prominently on the city’s skyline, and the history of this grey Aberdeen granite structure with tall Doric columns has always been closely interwoven with that of Singapore.

The Fullerton Hotel as you see it today was once the Fullerton Building, named after Robert Fullerton, the first Governor of the United Straits Settlements (1826-1830). The building was commissioned in 1919 as a part of the British colony’s centennial celebrations. Of all the lavish celebrations that reflected the optimism of the community, this was the most ambitious: when completed, the Fullerton Building was the largest structure ever built in Singapore.

Major PH Keys of Keys & Dowdeswell, a Shanghai firm of architects, won the project through an architectural design competition and gave the Fullerton Building its Neoclassical grandeur. Foundations were laid in 1924 and, after four years’ work and the expenditure of more than $4 million, the grand government administration building stood 120 feet tall on 41,100 square metres of land. The Fullerton Building became the symbol of modern Singapore: prominent on the skyline, pictured on postcards and widely recognised by travellers.

A newspaper report on its inauguration in The Straits Times described the building’s design as representing “a happy mean between beauty and utility, lightness and mass, and ornamentation and dignity”.

The Fullerton Building had 14 lifts and housed services and organisations such as the General Post Office, the Exchange, the Singapore Club, the Marine Department and the Import and Export Department. The General Post Office was its anchor tenant and moved in within two weeks of its opening. It occupied the lower two floors with postal halls, sorting rooms and offices.

The building was designed for natural ventilation, with four internal air-wells to keep the interiors cool. The basement was connected to a 35-metre subway that ran under Fullerton Road to a pier. From here, boats left carrying thousands of letters and stories across the seas. If you visit the hotel today, you will still find two red pillar post boxes, erected in 1873 during British colonial rule. Around five o’clock in the evening you may also see a postman dressed as postmen were in those years, coming to clear the mail.

The Singapore Club, patronised by the well-heeled, was on the upper floors. Patrons used the entrance that today belongs to The Fullerton Hotel’s hair and styling boutique, Salon de Florere. With a lounge, reading room, library, card and billiard rooms, the Singapore Club became the socialising and dining spot for high-ranking officials. The billiard room had six tables and there was a separate, private billiards room that could accommodate two tables. If you go upstairs to see where the billiards room was (today it’s used for parties and receptions), do look at the grand ceiling. The club bar was 200 feet long. The dining hall faced Battery Road and had a capacity of two hundred.

Accommodation for members was also available. In fact, it was in these quarters that Governor Sir Shenton Thomas and Lady Thomas took refuge when Government House (now the Istana) was bombed by the Japanese during World War II. It was here, in a fourth-storey room, that the British Governor was told of the British military’s decision to surrender to the Japanese. The room is now an exclusive lounge. If you have the opportunity to see it, have a look at its barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling – the only one in Singapore.

In the last days before the British surrender, the premises were used as a hospital for British soldiers, with makeshift operating rooms. During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the Fullerton Building became the headquarters of Japan’s military administration in Singapore.

On 9 August 1965, Singapore’s transition from colony to nation was celebrated at Fullerton Square, beside Cavenagh Bridge. From 1959 to 1988, political rallies were held in this same place; Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) would stand on the podium and address jostling crowds of thousands of people. It was here, from the porticos and five-foot ways of the Fullerton Building, that citizens declared their support for independence.

As a centre of Singapore’s commercial, social and official life, the Fullerton Building saw Singapore’s evolution into a strong financial centre. After the General Post Office moved out in 1996, this historical landmark was placed under conservation in 1997.

In January 2001, the Fullerton Building was reborn as the six-star Fullerton Hotel. The challenge was to blend the magnificence and dignity of the original structure with the luxury and exuberance required by its new avatar. Extensive renovations were carried out and about $400 million was spent to convert the office building into a 400-room luxury hotel. It was specified that the original exteriors and interiors be restored to their original condition as far as possible. The historic lighthouse that guided ships into the port was incorporated into a fine-dining restaurant called The Lighthouse.

More than a decade on, the building continues to tell the story of Singapore, as it maintains its panoramic views over Marina Bay, the Singapore River and the ever-evolving cityscape.

Fullerton Facts

  • The building stands on the site of the former Fort Fullerton, built in 1829 to defend the settlement against attacks from the sea.
  • 1,300 tons of steel, 3,500,000 bricks of various descriptions, 124,000 cubic feet of artificial granite, 20,000 cubic feet of timber and 52,288 barrels of cement were used in the construction of the building in 1928.
  • An ancient, inscribed stone monolith once stood near the site of the Fullerton Building. Unfortunately, it was blown up to widen the river passageway in 1843. A fragment of what remains, now known as The Singapore Stone, resides at the National Museum.
  • Only two other buildings in the country have the architectural grandeur of the Fullerton, namely the City Hall and the Supreme Court.
  • The Fullerton Heritage Gallery at the hotel has photographs, maps, stamps and philatelic materials that date back to 1932. Admission is free.