Penang's Soonstead Mansion saved from demolition

Soonstead Mansion is saved from demolition with change of development plans, September 4, 2014. Picture by K.E. Ooi
Soonstead Mansion is saved from demolition with change of development plans, September 4, 2014. Picture by K.E. Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Sept 4 — An online petition and calls from the public to save Soonstead Mansion has stopped its owner from going ahead with plans to demolish parts of the grand building to build an 11-storey hotel.

Local government and traffic management committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow said the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) received a letter from the architect of the project to say that they are reviewing development plans and the proposed building design to integrate the existing heritage building without demolishing the structure.

“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,” Chow told a press conference this morning.

He said the council had asked the project architect to amend the building design so that it doesn’t destroy the heritage building.

Following the meeting between the council and the architect, the architect then sent a letter on Aug 29 to state that the developer has decided to preserve the original building and to change its development plans and design for the project.

Soonstead Mansion is one of the grand heritage mansions along Penang’s “Millionaires’ Row” with a waterfront.

Soonstead Mansion, originally called Northam Lodge, was built by a 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 and during the housewarming party, the Straits Settlements Legislative Councillor A. R. Adams congratulated the owner on his “splendid domicile” and the architect on the “excellent results.”

Its beautiful architecture was soon emulated by other mansions such as Lim Lean Teng’s Woodville which is also along the same stretch and Choong Lye Hock’s mansion along Macalister Road.

The developer, Bayview Hotel Sdn Bhd, submitted an application for planning approval to demolish a portion of the mansion and build a single block of 11-storey hotel with a multilevel carpark on May 29 this year.

This prompted heritage watchdog Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) to start an online petition to stop the demolition of portions of the building and they successfully collected 3,000 signatures.

“The council has not approved the planning permission and now we will wait for the developer to reapply with new plans for the project,” Chow said.

He added that the developer and architect will be holding follow-up discussions with the council on the developments of the project.

The “Millionaires Row” where Soonstead is located was where rich plantation owners, the British and tycoons made their homes between the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Set among lush greenery and overlooking the sea, there are about 20 of these luxurious homes built along Northam Road which is currently known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

More than 20 years ago, PHT launched an almost similar campaign to save Metropole Hotel, another heritage mansion along the same row. However, it was illegally and furtively demolished on Christmas day of 1993.

Now, a luxurious high-rise condominium stands where Metropole, also known as Asdang House, was and though the developer was fined and ordered to rebuild the building, only a façade was built under the towering high-rise building.

“Now, despite our world heritage status, a lot of heritage buildings are being demolished,” PHT president Khoo Salma said.

If the council and state government is not careful, it may lose all these links to Penang’s rich history and past such as the Asdang House which was a link to Penang’s Thai heritage, she warned.

Soonstead Mansion has been left vacant for many years but was well-maintained by its owners and was recently used as the setting for a George Town Festival theatre production 2 Houses, a play set in the 1940s.