Buildings of great heritage value are found scattered across the state of Penang. But beyond the borders of the George Town UNESCO heritage core and buffer zones, pre-war edifices run the risk of being bulldozed in the name of development or of anything else. Quite a few of them are restored though, albeit often repurposed for contemporary uses. Here are some exciting examples.
Suffolk House today. Photo: Cmglee
This is the only major Anglo-Indian mansion to be found outside India. Its origins are still a matter of dispute – its earliest depictions date from 1811, and whether the present house was built for Francis Light or William Edward Phillips remains debated. Whichever the case, anyone who has been to Suffolk House in recent times will tell you that it is a fine piece of work.
It hadn’t been that way for a long time. Matter of fact, it was almost demolished.
In 1956 the Methodist Church that owned Suffolk House wanted to build a school in its place, but John Sjovald Hoseason Cunyngham-Brown, then president of the George Town Municipal Council, succeeded in convincing them to preserve the House and to erect the school next door.
But by the 1960s, it had deteriorated to a sorry state; and by 1974, it was sealed off. For over 20 years, Suffolk House languished, until the state government acquired the ruin in 2000. Restoration was carefully carried out by a group of enthusiasts, and with additional support from the state and through fundraising efforts by HSBC and the Penang Heritage Trust, restoration works on it were completed in 2007.
Today, a proud restaurant operates within the premises of what was once the residence of Penang’s early governors; and visitors may enjoy high tea or a pleasant meal within its magnificent halls.
Wickham Lodge / Penang Harmony Centre
Penang Harmony Centre. Photo: Enzo Sim.
Along Jalan Scotland lies the Penang Harmony Centre, lodged within a colonial wooden bungalow that dates back to at least 1893, according to survey maps done then by F. W. Kelly, Superintendent of Surveys. Previously housing the Institut Integriti Negeri Pulau Pinang, the bungalow was originally called Wickham Lodge.
The building has since been completely restored and refurbished as a space for non-Islamic religious activities, and has the primary aim of fostering peaceful and harmonious relations between the different religions in Penang through activities and seminars. Allocated with an establishment fund of RM3mil from the Penang state government, the 4,300 sq ft space houses house offices, function rooms, a dining area and conference rooms. Additionally, a 2,800 sq ft community centre will also be constructed next to the extant bungalow to host various events.
Limburg / KFC
Limburg. Photo: Enzo Sim.
Many would recall the KFC outlet on Jalan Larut, and many a child would have memories of birthday parties on the premises, or having fun in the playground on the lawn.
But before it was a fast-food restaurant, it had a statelier purpose, having been built for Penang’s first millionaire industrialist, Lim Cheng Teik, in 1916. Known as “Limburg”, the house is described as a “rambling castle mansion” which had an “exaggerated gothicised tower”. Limburg’s design was drawn up by the famous architect Henry Alfred Neubronner’s chief draughtsman, Chew Eng Eam; and became so iconic that it came to be seen as a “forerunner of the ‘boom style’ bungalows designed by local architects in subsequent years”.
Limburg became KFC in 1987. In 2019, after 32 years of operations, KFC had to relinquish the building after the owner put up the land and building for sale. What awaits Limburg remains unknown, but there is a chance that the mansion might be preserved. One can hope.
Homestead / Wawasan Open University
Homestead, with Wawasan Open University's main campus in the background.
Once the home of millionaire philanthropist Yeap Chor Ee and his family, Homestead, located on 54, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (still popularly called Northam Road by locals, and known in the old days as Millionaires’ Row for its many magnificent mansions) has been donated to the Wawasan Education Foundation and is now Wawasan Open University, Malaysia’s first private non-profit university.
On the site of the manse once stood the former residence of Thomas Gawthorne, a local legal luminary. It changed hands to Lim Mah Chye, a well-known Chinese merchant, who demolished the old buildings and constructed the present structure, designed by Messrs Stark & McNeill, between 1919 and 1922. Homestead subsequently entered the estate of Yeap Chor Ee.
Today, Wawasan Open University’s main campus stands behind the conserved mansion, which serves as a dutiful reminder of Yeap Chor Ee’s philanthropy, especially in the realm of public education.
St. Joseph’s Novitiate / St. Jo’s @ Gurney Paragon
St. Jo's in the background. Photo: Gurney Paragon.
St Joseph’s Novitiate and its baroque chapel were designed by David McLeod Craik of Swan, Maclaren & Craik; construction was completed in 1925. It served as a novitiate for the Christian brothers as well as a teachers’ training college. Beautiful stained glass windows and patterned tiles adorn the building, which housed the International School of Penang (Uplands) after the De La Salle Brothers vacated the premises in the 1980s. Prior to its current state, the building had a sprawling lawn facing Jalan Kelawai, on which Uplands School’s sporting events and such were held.
Today, St. Jo’s, as it is called now, has been restored and is integrated into Gurney Paragon, and forms part of the development’s Festival Square and plays a role as an events space.
British Military Defence Fortress / Penang War Museum
Penang War Museum. Photo: Emilia Ismail.
Touted as an impregnable military stronghold, the fortress was built in the 1930s replete with military barracks, anti-aircraft firing pits, canon-firing bay and underground tunnels. It was manned by British, Sikh and Malay soldiers upon completion.
The sprawling 19.36-acre fortress was built to have a 320-degree view of the sea around the island to the South Channel.
The fortress was subsequently used by the Japanese to detain prisoners of war, and it was where many atrocities were reputed to have happened – evidences of these lie in the bullet-riddled walls and guillotine stand.
The site was abandoned after the war until 2002, when it was restored and curated as a museum to provide a glimpse into a raw and painful period of Penang’s history, and a visceral experience of life during wartime.
Do you know of any others? Share with us on Facebook or Instagram at @PenangMonthly, or write in to us at editor@ penangmonthly.com.
- John Sun Hock Lim, The Penang House and the Straits Architect 1887–1941, Penang: Areca Books, 2015
- LKC and Khoo Su Nin, “Millionaires’ Row”, Pulau Pinang Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 1
- Louise Goss-Custard, “The swashbuckling municipal president of Penang”, Penang Monthly, October 2015
- Ooi Kee Beng, “Suffolk House-keeping”, Penang Monthly, March 2010
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of South-east Asia. His passion has brought him to different South-east Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.
Julia “Bubba” Tan is the former editor of Penang Monthly and head of the Publication and Publicity Department at Penang Institute.