Letter to the Mayor of Penang
– Protecting the Heritage of Soonstead and Jalan Ahmad Shah
30th April 2015
Dato’ Patahiyah binti Ismail
Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang
Paras 17 Komtar,
10675 Jalan Penang,
Dear Dato’ Patahiyah binti Ismail,
It has come to our attention that there is a new proposal involving the historic mansion known as Soonstead at No 46-B Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. The proposal includes plans to ‘demolish part of the house… [and] to build 1 block of 13 storey (97 rooms) including 3 storey parking bay.’
The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) strongly and unequivocally objects to the proposal. In a press interview, YB Chow said ‘The Council had taken into consideration views from the public and also comments from George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) that the building should be preserved’, and that the developer had been asked to amend the design to avoid any demolition. The newly submitted plans thus appear to contravene this condition. What is of equal concern is the plan to construct a highrise block behind the existing historic building, which will have a tremendous visual impact on the setting of Soonstead and on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah as a whole.
Last year, PHT coordinated the highly publicised Save Soonstead petition, objecting to similar plans. The signature garnered considerable media attention, and received almost 4000 signatures. Objections came from many significant parties, including Dr Richard Englehardt, former UNESCO regional advisor for culture, who was involved in the process of obtaining George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Listing.
As a result of the petition, the plans were shelved, and PHT asked that MBPP involve us in consultation regarding any further proposals. We were however not officially informed of the present submission. We expect that MBPP, as custodians of the City of Penang Island’s heritage, will take its role seriously and take into account the strong public interest expressed in the heritage of Soonstead.
We regret that one of Penang’s most iconic heritage buildings is once again threatened by an unsympathetic development proposal. While MBPP is now consulting the neighbours of Soonstead for their views, we feel that the overwhelming public interest in iconic architectural landmark warrants wider consultation. We now ask for a moratorium on all development on this important road, a complete review of the heritage inventory and new urban design guidelines for Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, before any further development is considered.
At the time of the previous objections, we also suspected Soonstead, as well as other significant buildings along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, was missing from MBPP’s heritage inventory, and this suspicion was confirmed in several meetings we had with the MBPP regarding the on-going heritage inventory. We therefore asked for a complete review of the heritage inventory of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, and also for the drafting of design guidelines to retain the character of this important street so as not to repeat the mistakes of façadism and façadomy which have marred Penang’s reputation as a heritage city.
Attached below is the text of last year’s petition letter which, at the time of writing, has 3972 signatures.
President, Penang Heritage Trust (PHT)
Save Soonstead Petition 2014
The heritage of Soonstead is threatened by a proposed 11-storey tower block which would necessitate the demolition of the house’s dining room wing and annexe buildings.
Originally called Northam Lodge, the mansion was built by the prominent architect James Stark in 1911 for the rubber and sugar planter Heah Swee Lee. The house was a focus of George Town’s high society. At the housewarming, the Straits Settlements Legislative Councillor A. R. Adams congratulated the owner on his ‘splendid domicile’ and the architect on the ‘excellent results’.
Soonstead at 46B Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (formerly Northam Road) is Penang’s leading ‘castle mansion’, setting the fashion for the city’s grand houses. It was emulated by Lim Lean Teng’s Woodville on Northam Road, and the house for Choong Lye Hock’s on Macalister Road designed by Chew Eng Eam.
Today, this iconic mansion is one of the few homes on Penang’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’ still set within its original grounds, which stretch out towards the sea.
With the proposed development, Soonstead would be mutilated and dwarfed by the 11-storey block (hotel of 108 rooms inclusive of 2-storeys parking), while its garden setting and relationship with the sea would be lost. Such an outcome would make a mockery of George Town’s status and responsibilities as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS). It is important to maintain the architecture and urban setting of George Town’s adjacent historic townscape in sympathy with the WHS as part of our legacy for future generations.
In 1989, MPPP drew up a list of 20 heritage buildings on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and drafted guidelines for the sensitive development of the area; Soonstead was identified as one of the heritage buildings worth conserving. Yet many developments approved in the last 25 years have compromised the character of ‘Millionaire’s Row’. Soonstead should not become another victim of guidelines being ignored.
The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) urges the Penang state government and the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) to protect the heritage of Soonstead, and calls for a moratorium on developments on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah until MPPP’s own guidelines and the developments in this area have been reviewed.