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Raffles Hotel is a Singapore landmark located at 1 Beach Road. Established in 1887, the colonial-era hotel with a rich history is well known for its period architecture and décor, luxurious accommodation and fine cuisine, and has won numerous accolades over the years. The hotel is known in particular for its popular Tiffin Room buffet, and for the Singapore Sling cocktail created in 1915. Raffles Hotel was first gazetted as a national monument in 1987 and later re-gazetted in 1995.
Raffles Hotel began as Beach House, a private home built in the early 1830s by Robert Scott, a descendant of Sir Walter Scott. In 1878, Dr Charles Emmerson leased the building and opened Emmerson's Hotel. After his sudden death in 1883, the hotel closed and the Raffles Boarding School took up tenancy until its expiry in September 1887.
The Armenian Sarkies brothers, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak, already established hoteliers at the time, then leased Beach House from its owner, the wealthy Arab merchant Syed Mohamed Alsagoff, and announced their intention to turn it into a hotel offering fine accommodation and cuisine. Thus on 1 December 1887, Raffles Hotel commenced operations as a 10-room hotel. While the facilities in its early years were still under development, its prime sea-front location near town made it very popular with European residents and travellers.
Building and development
Under the Sarkies brothers, Raffles Hotel grew as a commercial enterprise. Their commitment to the highest standards in service, accommodation and cuisine was responsible for making Raffles Hotel known as a first-class establishment that attracted guests of stature.
Tigran Sarkies, in particular, was closely involved in the hotel’s development. He established the popular Raffles Tiffin Rooms at Commercial Square and undertook major building projects, adding three buildings to the original Beach House in the hotel’s first decade. A pair of two-storey wings containing 22 new suites was completed in 1890, followed by a new Billiard Room located at the junction of Beach Road and Bras Basah Road. In 1892, the brothers leased the site at No. 3 Beach Road and built the Palm Court Wing, which was completed in 1894.
The Main Building of the hotel was designed by R. A. J. Bidwell of the architecture firm Swan & Maclaren and built on the site of the original Beach House. Completed in 1899, it was considered state-of-the-art at the time. Designed with tropical architectural features such as high ceilings and extensive verandahs, the Main Building also included modern conveniences like powered ceiling fans and electric lights, a first for any hotel in the region. The Dining Room, featuring pillars and a white Carrara marble floor, could seat up to 500 people. In 1904, the Bras Basah Wing, also designed by Bidwell, was added. The Palm Court was extended in 1910 and the Ballroom opened in 1920.
Unfortunately, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Sarkies brothers accumulated debts of S$3.5 million and by 1931 were declared bankrupt. However, the hotel survived and was incorporated in 1933 as Raffles Hotel Limited.
The war and post-war years
The 1942 Japanese invasion prompted Raffles staff to bury the hotel silverware, including the silver beef trolley, in the Palm Court. The Japanese renamed the hotel Syonan Ryokan or Light of the South Hotel, and its main entrance was moved to face east to catch the morning sun. The hotel was appointed the quarters for senior Japanese military officers.
After the Japanese surrender, M. S. Arathoon, whom the Japanese had retained as assistant manager, re-opened the hotel in September 1945. Many of the local staff had remained with the hotel during the war years, and other displaced staff returned. The silverware was duly retrieved from its hiding place. The hotel became a temporary transit camp for prisoners of war who were to be repatriated.
After the war, Raffles Hotel regained some of its former fame, remaining a colonial landmark that drew expatriates and foreign visitors. During the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel faced new challenges due to changing political, economic and social circumstances. With the withdrawal of the British colonial administration, the Singapore government actively promoted tourism to earn revenue. Raffles Hotel became a tourist attraction because of its reputation as a historic hotel and encountered competition from more modern hotels that had sprung up along Orchard Road. By the 1970s, some of the hotel’s former glory had faded and its buildings were in need of refurbishment.
Raffles Hotel was gazetted as a national monument on 4 March 1987. In 1989, the hotel closed for large-scale restoration that lasted two years and reopened on 16 September 1991. The S$160 million restoration was undertaken by Architects 61, with interiors by Bent Severin and Associates, based on the original building plans and old photographs. Taking 1915 as the benchmark year, the restoration process involved replacing the 1920s ballroom with the original cast-iron portico; repairing decorative plasterwork; and reinstating the large timber staircase. A new block was also added that housed an in-house museum, a shopping arcade, and the Jubilee Theatre, a reproduction of a nineteenth-century playhouse. The hotel was re-gazetted as a national monument on 3 June 1995.
Ownership and accolades
In 2003, Jennie Chua was appointed general manager of the hotel, the first Singaporean and woman to manage the hotel. Two years later, the hotel was sold to US investment fund Colony Capital. A subsequent merger with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts led to the creation of Fairmont Raffles Hotels International.
In April 2010, Raffles Hotel was acquired by Qatar Diar, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar. The following month, Raffles Hotel received Ultratravel magazine’s prestigious Ultimate Luxury Travel Related Award for Best Hotel In Asia/Australia for the fourth consecutive year.
Guests and visitors
Over the years, Raffles Hotel has developed a long list of distinguished guests that includes members of royalty, political figures and celebrities such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Indonesian President Suharto and entertainer Michael Jackson. The Writers Bar is named for the numerous literary figures that have visited the hotel, among others Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward. There are suites named after early hotel guests such as Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham, who is reputed to have spent his days writing at the Palm Court.
In addition, the hotel has seen some more unusual visitors, including a python and a wild boar. In a well-known incident in 1902, early one morning an escaped circus tiger found its way under the hotel’s Billiard Room, which stood on stilts at the time. Charles Phillips, then principal of Raffles Institution and a member of Singapore’s rifle team, was summoned to the hotel, where, still dressed in his pyjamas, he shot and killed the tiger.
Joanna HS Tan
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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