Thursday, 18 September 2014

Soonstead reprieved

So, Soonstead Mansion along Northam Road is saved. According to a news report in The Malay Mail a fortnight ago, the online petition initiated by the Penang Heritage Trust, coupled with vocal calls from the public, to save Soonstead has stopped its present owner from proceeding with plans to demolish parts of the 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 any part of 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 does not destroy the heritage building.

Following several meetings, the architect then sent a letter on the 29th of August to state that the developer had decided to preserve the original building and change its development plans and design for the project.

The developer, Bayview Hotel Sdn Bhd which belongs to the Boon Siew Group, had originally submitted an application for planning approval to demolish the dining room wing and annexe buildings of Soonstead and build a single block of 11-storey hotel with a multi-level carpark on 29 May 2014.

To date, the online petition started by the PHT to stop the proposed demolition of part of the building has collected at least 3,880 signatures.

Soonstead was originally known as Northam Lodge when it was built by James Stark, a prominent architect with the firm Stark & McNeill in the Straits Settlements, 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, AR Adams, had congratulated the owner on his "splendid domicile" and the architect on the "excellent results".

Soonstead at 46-B Northam Road is one of Penang’s castle mansions, the numbers of which are progressivley dwindling. According to the PHT, Soonstead was the fashion trendsetter for George Town's grand houses along the road which is still famously referred to as Millionaire's Row, so-called because rich plantation owners, the British and tycoons made their homes here between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

Set among lush greenery and overlooking the sea, there are about 20 of these luxurious homes along the road. Soonstead sparked the construction frenzy of many other mansions such as Lim Lean Teng’s Woodville and Lim Mah Chye's Homestead, both also on Northam Road.

If the proposed development had gone ahead, Soonstead would have been irreversibly mutilated and dwarfed, like Homestead further up the road, by the 11-storey hotel block while its garden setting and relationship with the sea would be lost.

By 1935, ownership of Soonstead had passed from the estate of Heah Swee Lee, who died in 1924, to the Soon family. It's not documented the year when Soon Eng Kong changed the name of the mansion from Northam Lodge to Soonstead. Soon Eng Kong bequeathed the mansion to his eldest grandson, Sonny Soon, but allowed Soon Cheng Sun (Eng Kong's elder son and joint trustee of the estate of Soon Eng Kong) to stay there. Soon Cheng Sun tried to sell off the mansion in 1973 but he was resisted by his own brother, who was the joint trustee, and his son, Sonny Soon.

I believe that in the late 1970s, when maintenance costs ultimately proved too high for the occupants to bear, Soonstead was sold off to the Honda king, Loh Boon Siew, who later removed the gold leaf-plated fence and installed everything at his own Boon Siew Villa further down the road. A concrete fence was constructed in its place.

After that, Soonstead was left vacant for many years but it was still well-maintained. Recently, the mansion was used as the setting for a George Town Festival theatre production of "2 Houses", a play set in the 1940s.

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