Greater need for public consultation on heritage preservation
Article by Marina Emmanuel – Source: New Straits Times, September 7, 2014
The audience of the sold-out theatre performance “2Houses” at the George Town Festival last month might have wondered if they were there to enjoy the last “tour” of a grand house and its grounds, which had been earmarked for development.
The mansion in question was “Soonstead” (originally called Northam Lodge), built by architect James Stark in 1911 for one of Penang’s then-illustrious sons, rubber and sugar planter Heah Swee Lee.
The two-hour performance took the audience through different parts of one of Penang’s fast-disappearing grand heritage houses along the island’s “Millionaires Row” (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah or previously known as Northam Road).
Many among the crowd were mindful that the threat of demolition was hanging over Soonstead Mansion, which could meet the same fate as some of its magnificent neighbours whose architecture had either been so drastically altered or demolished without regard to preserving their history.
In the case of iconic Soonstead Mansion, developer Bayview Hotel Sdn Bhd had submitted an application to the Penang Island Municipal Council to build a hotel.
The proposal would see the demolition of the mansion’s dining room wing and annexe buildings.
However, last week, efforts by heritage watchdog Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) to save Soonstead Mansion appear to be paying off.
Local Government and Traffic Management Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow announced that the council has received a letter from the architects of the project saying that they would review the development plans and proposed building design to integrate the existing buildings without demolishing the structure.
The fact that the local council has yet to approve the partial demolition of Soonstead Mansion is a plus factor.
This has enabled the state government and authorities to take a step back and assess various factors, such as public sentiment and the urgency to save George Town’s heritage.
The PHT’s alertness to the impending development and speed in which it went about to garner public support is commendable, for it was able to highlight the issue well before the necessary approvals had been obtained.
Equally gratifying is the developer’s mindfulness to public sentiment and a willingness to return to the drawing board to save Soonstead Mansion.
As more and more of George Town’s heritage buildings and open spaces continue to be viewed as “standing in the way” of development, the need for public consultation and awareness of the urgency to save the state’s history could not be more crucial than the current moment.