If you’ve ever ventured into the sequestered areas around Singapore, you may have noticed these black and white houses (or, bungalows).
These houses are a living, breathing remnant of the island’s colonial past. Also known as “colonial bungalows”, these black and white houses were built to house high-ranking, noble European families between the 1800s up until the late 1930s. From its name, “black and white” refers to the white-washed walls and dark timber beams commonly found in these houses.
The history of “black and white houses” in Singapore
Black and white houses traditionally follow a Tudorbethan architecture style – a more muted subset of Tudor Revival architecture without the complexity and grandeur of Jacobethan architecture. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell – who also designed Raffles Hotel, Stamford House and Goodwood Park Hotel – pioneered “Mock Tudorbethan” housing in Singapore, building The Atbara House (pictured above) at Gallop Road in 1898.
Contrary to popular belief: The Atbara House, while commonly dubbed as the “first black and white house” in Singapore, is not the first – as noted by architecture historians Dr. Julian Davison and Yeo Kang Shua. According to this article by The Straits Times, The Atbara House was, instead, the first inspiration that “paved the way for the first generation of black and white houses [in Singapore]”, as noted by Dr. Davison, in his 2006 book Black And White, The Singapore House (1898 – 1941).
The Atbara House was built to adapt to tropical climates while still preserving the beauty of English homes – a trait that many black and white houses in Singapore subsequently followed suit. Inspired by Malay kampong houses, these houses had high ceilings and, sometimes, elevated stilts to reduce damage from flash foods and termites. Did you know that the dark timber woods are a result of creosote? (An oil used to protect woods against termites.)
Presently, only about 500 of black and white houses remain in Singapore. These houses are mostly state-owned and protected by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). They are also highly in-demand when listed for rent on the market; to preserve the rich heritage of these houses, owners are prohibited from making modifications.
Here’s where to find black and white houses in Singapore:
1. Beaulieu House, Sembawang Park
Overlooking the blue waters of the Straits of Johor, Beaulieu House is a colonial bungalow-turned-seaside-restaurant that’s popular among foodies and, you guessed it, couples. Beaulieu House is often rented out for marriage solemnisations and wedding dinners, too.
Beaulieu House was owned by J. B. David and his family in the 1910s as a holiday home. In 1924, it was acquired by the colonial government during the construction of the Sembawang Naval Base. When British forces withdrew from Singapore in 1968, this area was developed into Sembawang Park in 1979. In 1981, Beaulieu House was turned into a restaurant.
2. Queens Avenue, Sembawang
Surrounded by greenery, this 15-hectare colonial bungalow offers a charming recluse from the frenzy of city life. You can catch a stunning view of the Straits of Johor and a glimpse of Singapore’s old naval base from here. It’s also just a short walk from Sembawang Park.
3. Changi Village Road
Changi Village Road is no stranger to black and white houses. Built during the 1930s, these pre-colonial homes possess an idyllic ambience surrounded by flora and fauna. Just a few minutes away is Changi Beach Park, where you can go on the Changi Point Coastal Walk.
4. Alexandra Park
The houses in this estate were first built in the 1930s to house British officers stationed in Alexandra and Gillman Barracks. It was also used by medical personnel working in the nearby Alexandra Military Hospital – now known as Alexandra Hospital. The hospital has since been upgraded, however, it has retained its colonial-esque architecture to pay homage to its heritage.
5. Gillman Barracks, Alexandra Road
Gillman Barracks is one of Singapore’s most iconic contemporary art clusters. Built in 1936, this property was a former military barrack for the British army owing to its prime location near the sea. It’s also one of the last British outposts to fall to the Japanese during the Second World War. Now owned by the National Arts Council, Gillman Barracks is home to many leading international art galleries, restaurants and is also home to the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.
6. Mount Faber
A small cluster of black and white houses remain in Mount Faber. A popular location for its peace and quiet, the 2-storey colonial bungalows in this area are surrounded by lush greenery. Its surrounding vicinity is also part of the popular Southern Ridges hiking trail.
7. Wessex Estate
First built during the 1930s and 40s, black and white houses were scattered across a labyrinth of five roads in Wessex Estate, all named after English towns: Woking Road, Westbourne Road, Whitchurch Road, Weyhill Close and Wilton Close. By the 1950s, there were over 200 British families residing here, of which many worked at nearby military barracks in Alexandra and Pasir Panjang. When the British left Singapore in the late 1960s, the properties here were handed over to the Singapore government.
Now, the houses are rented to the public and are a popular home location for those working at the nearby science hubs and business parks of Buona Vista and One-North. Many international families with children attending the nearby Tanglin Trust School also have made Wessex Estate their home.
8. Rochester Park
In the 1940s, 40 of these black and white bungalows were built to house British soldiers stationed at the Pasir Panjang Military Base. Presently, many of these houses are rented to restaurants and bars – Da Paolo Bistro Bar, The Rochester House, One Rochester and more. Remember that one Starbucks store that was dubbed one of the “most beautiful” in Singapore? It’s sitting in one of these colonial-style houses at Rochester Park, too!
9. Mount Pleasant
Bounded by Thomas Road, the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) and Andrew Road, this area was acquired by the colonial government in the 1920s to house high-ranking British officers, including senior police officers from the nearby Police Academy.
The houses at Mount Pleasant were designed by architects from the British administration’s Public Works Department, bearing a close resemblance to Tudor architecture. These bungalows are among the grandest government-built black and white houses – large English landscape gardens were replicated, making them perfect for Gatsby-esque social nights and parties.
10. Adam Park
While full of charming black and white architectural features, Adam Park was once a Prisoner of War (POW) camp during the Second World War. In 1942, this was also the last battle between the British and Japanese troops before the latter took over the land.
11. Burkill Hall, Singapore Botanic Gardens
Located in the Singapore Botanic Gardens and overlooking the National Orchid Garden, Burkill Hall is the oldest, still-surviving Anglo-Malayan plantation building from the 1800s. Today, it’s a popular location for marriage solemnisations and wedding receptions, catering up to 100 guests. Go here for more information on renting this place.
12. Dempsey Hill, Dempsey Road
Formerly an enlistment centre in the 70s, Dempsey Hill almost needs little to no introduction. As a thriving foodie hotspot, this former colonial estate is now home to popular food estabs like PS.Cafe, Baker & Cook, Culina at COMO Dempsey, Chopsuey Cafe, Huber’s Bistro and many more.
13. Goodwood Hill
Back in 1910, the black and white houses in Goodwood Hill were one of the earliest built by the British’s Public Works Department for top civil servants in the colonial government. Over time, these houses have been regularly used for administrative purposes – particularly as a “political study centre for civil servants”, as announced in 1959 by then Minister for Finance, Dr. Goh Keng Swee.
Black and white houses tour around Singapore
You can now also guided walks around these neighbourhoods to spot the remaining black and white houses across the island. Jane’s SG Tours often holds tours around Singapore – the Black & White Houses: Neighbourhood Stroll may just be right up your alley.
Or, hit up the Singapore Heritage Society for heritage tours around the country. Tip: Follow them on Facebook to get alerted on upcoming heritage tours. (Warm up those fingers because these slots fill up, fast.)
Originally by Willaine G. Tan