Heritage mansions under threat
from the Penang Heritage Trust
Soonstead, originally called Northam Lodge, was built by the 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. At the housewarming, the Straits Settlements Legislative Councillor A. R. Adams congratulated the owner on his ‘splendid domicile’ and the architect on the ‘excellent results’.
The mansion, at 46B Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) is Penang’s leading ‘castle mansion’, setting the fashion for the city’s grand houses. It was emulated by Lim Lean Teng’s Woodville, also on Northam Road, and Choong Lye Hock’s on Macalister Road, designed by Chew Eng Eam.
Soonstead is one of the few homes on Penang’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’ still set within its original grounds, which stretch out towards the sea.
Planning permission has now been sought for a 13-storey hotel tower block. With the proposed development, Soonstead would be mutilated and dwarfed by the 11-storey hotel of 108 rooms and 2-storey parking; its garden setting and relationship with the sea would be lost.
Such an outcome would make a mockery of George Town’s status and responsibilities as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS). It is important to maintain the architecture and urban setting of George Town’s adjacent historic townscape in sympathy with the WHS as part of our legacy for future generations.
In 1989, the Municipal Council drew up a list of 20 heritage buildings on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and drafted guidelines for the sensitive development of the area; Soonstead was identified as one of the heritage buildings worth conserving. Yet many developments approved in the last 25 years have compromised the character of ‘Millionaire’s Row’. Soonstead should not become another victim of guidelines being ignored.
The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) urges the Penang state government and the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) to protect the heritage of Soonstead, and calls for a moratorium on development in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah until MPPP’s own guidelines and the developments in this area have been reviewed.