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Project Profile


2008 Award of Distinction

Suffolk House

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Project TitleSuffolk House

LocationAyer Itam Road, Penang, Malaysia

Size6,057 square metres

CostUS$ 1,800,000

Responsible PartyPenang State Government, HSBC Bank, Penang Heritage Trust, Public Works Department and Arkitek LLA

Heritage ArchitectLaurence K.Y. Loh


Date of CompletionMarch 2007


Suffolk House, built on the site of the home of Captain Francis Light, the first representative for the East India Company in Penang, is a striking reminder of the British colonial era in Malaysia and an important remnant of Penang’s colourful history over the past two centuries. The house served as an official government residence and government building for almost a century, and later performed a variety of functions, including many years as a school.

Although there are laws and guidelines articulating ways to protect built heritage in Penang, Suffolk House had never been listed as a heritage site. Due to financial constraints, the structure fell progressively into disrepair and was abandoned in 1973. In 1999, the ownership of the Suffolk House site was transferred to the State Government of Penang, which made it possible to allocate funds to begin the conservation effort.

Building History

Following the death of Captain Francis Light, his land was sold in 1805 to a customs officer in Penang, William Edward Phillips, who built a Georgian-style garden house on the site. Suffolk House is depicted in paintings by James George (1811) and Captain Robert Smith (1818), and both of these paintings served as important references for the restoration effort.

From 1820 onward, several governors of Penang used Suffolk House as their official residence. Not surprisingly, the house was the centre of numerous social activities, many of which were reported in the Pinang Gazette, a local newspaper of the time.

In 1830, because of the poor condition of the house, the Penang government, which had taken ownership of the property following the departure of Phillips from Penang, decided to remodel the building and grounds. Government engineers recommended the demolition of the eastern and western colonnades. They also ordered the lowering of the roof parapet to accommodate a terracotta-tile pitched roof and ordered the partial rebuilding of the façade and redecoration of the interior.

The building also received side extensions to create more space. Windows eventually replaced the open colonnade at the ground floor level.

After the remodelling, the house slowly passed on to less prominent owners. It eventually became the property of a Chinese millionaire, who sold it in the mid-1920s to the Methodist Church for use as the Anglo-Chinese School. During the Second World War, the Japanese army occupied the building. Following the war, the building housed the primary grades of the Methodist Boys’ School, with the house eventually serving as the school canteen and as a dental clinic. Neglected and dilapidated, the building faced demolition following its abandonment in the mid-1970s.

Project History

Suffolk House has long held a special place in Penang and fortunately survived several threats of demolition. In 1956, noting the historic significance of the house, the President of the City Council refused to grant permission to the administrators of the Methodist School to raze the old building as part of an expansion scheme for the school property. In subsequent years, heritage advocates, architects, writers and historians petitioned on behalf of the neglected property, hoping that a sympathetic owner could be found to resurrect the threatened building.

In the face of its continuing deterioration, in 1987 the Penang Heritage Trust initiated a “Save Suffolk House” campaign. This effort continued over nearly two decades as the organization continued to seek funding and raise community awareness. In 2000 the Government of Penang took an important first step, through the grant of US$ 150,000, to begin a process of conservation. While this allowed conservation work to be initiated, the start-up fund was depleted within 18 months, after which the trust needed to find additional funding.

In 2003, through the efforts of the Penang Heritage Trust and the project’s eventual consultant, the State Government and the HSBC Bank brokered an arrangement to provide US$ 1.05 million to continue Phase 2 of the restoration works. Although the project made significant progress over the next two years, funds were not sufficient to complete much of the work on the interior. To make up the difference, the consultant and other supporters raised money through individual contributions. The most effective strategy was to ask members of the community, Malaysian people of Penang, to sponsor various aspects of the work, providing funds for specific columns or rooms to be restored as individual contributions to the overall project. Eventually garnering broad community support, the restoration project was completed in March 2007.

Project Scope and Framework

The principal aim of the project was to restore Suffolk House to the height of its grandeur, the period between 1812 and 1820: the tenancy of William Edward Phillips. Well documented in historic renderings, the historic core property had experienced numerous changes and additions over the years. The restoration therefore required removing many of these later additions as well as the restoration and recreation of significant features, including the original roof profile parapet, details of the arcades and the interior configuration of passageways and rooms. To enhance its value and potential as a venue for special events, the project also included building a new two-storey annexe; this was added onto the east end of the site, between the historic structure and the school, with a steel, timber and glass bridge connecting it with the upper floor of Suffolk House. The new annexe, built in a modern vocabulary with its dimensions drawing on the historic building, allows for the separation of modern functions from the historic core building.

In addition to work on the core building and annexe, the project also included substantial changes to the site’s surroundings. This included landscaping, the planting of trees and shrubs, and the reconstruction of an ornamental bridge once part of the property’s grounds. This work added an additional dimension to the project by recognizing the intangible values of the site. It also paved the way for to a resource centre highlighting the flora of Penang and Malaysia.

The scope of project also included adopting a management plan to make use of the building once it had been conserved and ensuring that educational and interpretative objectives were part of the overall plan.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The conjoined concepts of authenticity and significance lay at the core of the project at Suffolk House. In this project, the ruinous state of the existing building and its special history caused the conservation architect to look for a definitive starting point and to identify key concept to help direct the process. The idea of recovering the “spirit of the place” became a guiding principle in the project design and the phrase “restoring the image” became a rallying point for the project’s supporters.

Research for the project included a survey of written documents, including books, correspondence and gazettes; historic images, both paintings and engravings; and archaeological excavations. This preliminary work provided a foundation for the overall project design and helped in decision-making throughout the implementation of the project works.

When work on the main building began, the underlying conservation philosophy was that all materials and methods of construction had to be true to the original structure, as much as possible. There were exceptions, but these related primarily to structural and safety issues. Both fibreglass and steel were employed as reinforcements for the lintels, roof perimeter beam and the parapet wall. The perimeter Tuscan columns were also of modern substitute materials, to prevent termite damage, dampness and to provide stability.

Pattern books used by builders who journeyed to the Far East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries proved to be invaluable references in reconstructing lost elements and details. Comparing the remaining physical traces with the specifications in the books invariably showed a good match for components such as balustrades, cornices, columns and even the building’s colour scheme, allowing the reconstruction design to proceed with a high level of accuracy. Mock-ups were built to ensure that the correct proportions were achieved.

In some instances, no decision could be reached on how to reconstruct missing elements. For instance, archaeological excavation uncovered three foundations for the portecochère(carriage porch), which had been rebuilt several times. It was consequently left as an open archaeological dig, allowing visitors to speculate on the options and enriching the interpretation of the site.

To control the technical execution of work and the quality of materials, rigorous testing was carried out and detailed guidelines were developed for the workers. Various materials were tested to ascertain their composition and strength, including lime plaster and mortar, paint and timber. In all aspects of the restoration work, method statements and drawings on the chosen conservation techniques were drafted by the contractor for the conservation architect’s approval before in situ work could proceed. Traditional woodworkers, stone workers and brick masons had to prove their skills and experience before being included in the team.

A combination of traditional craftsmanship and modern techniques were used. For example, to deal with the problem of salt efflorescence caused by rising damp, a cocooning system was introduced in tandem with the installation of a damp-proof course, using liquid injections into the brickwork at the floor level. To support the building’s use as a public venue, a commercialsized kitchen, toilets, an escape staircase and a lift were constructed. These services were installed in the newly built annexe block, so as to protect the fragile historic fabric from too many modern additions.

The project team furnished a number of the rooms of Suffolk House with colonial period furnishings to provide visitors with a sense of the authentic historic Georgian ambience of the historic building.

Important Issues

As a consequence of many changes of ownership and function over its two centuries of existence, Suffolk House experienced numerous alterations in structure and appearance, many of them unrecorded. The project architect had no access to historic building plans, construction documents or other records to help design the project; and the original owners and builders left only minimal records of their work. Much of the evidence was embedded in the fabric of the existing structure; other aspects of the building’s design and appearance had been lost entirely.

When restoration works began in 2000, 70 percent of the building’s structural and decorative fabric had been lost, leaving numerous puzzles for the project team. Questions about the best approach were paramount. To what period should Suffolk House be restored? How much later fabric should be retained? After the examination of early paintings, written documentation in the form of historical essays, contemporary notices in newspapers and gazettes, government documents, private letters, photographs taken in different periods and oral histories, the project architect and his team settled on the choice of restoring the property to the best documented and most significant time in its history.

This was the period between 1812 and1820, which best exemplifies the significance of the property as well as providing the fullest expression of its historic and aesthetic values. The recommendations of the South Australia Conservation Unit (SACON) in a preliminary survey of the property.

Project Sustainability and Viability 

Key to the project’s success was the development of management plan, supported by a viable and sustainable business plan. The project team held several workshops to identify strategies and activities that might provide the basis for long-term support. Ideas included hosting special events, commercial uses and other means of generating continuing income for the property. Ultimately, a restaurant was opened in the historic dining room. In addition, the first floor halls are leased out for public functions and parties. To accommodate this, the enclosed area on the ground floor was air-conditioned. Both short- and long-term maintenance of the site were considered in the planning process. A first step was a maintenance contract, awarded to the contractor responsible for the conservation works. The rationale for this decision was that the contracted company had become familiar with the site and with the requirements of the conservation architect.

The project architect continues to have a role in the ongoing management of Suffolk House, as he sits on the management board, which is comprised of representatives from the HSBC Bank, the Penang Heritage Trust, the fund-raising coordinator and several other interested parties.

As a result of public attention and continued fundraising, the trust fund for Suffolk House had US$ 215,000 on account at the end of the project. The management board earmarked these funds for future capital expenditures and to serve as the beginning of a permanent sinking fund. The HSBC Bank pledged an additional US$ 75,000 as a grant to facilitate maintenance for a five-year initial period, subject to future renewal if required.

Although the project was the brainchild of only a few impassioned individuals, ultimately the general public had an indispensible role in the success of the project. Thus, the people of Penang share jointly in the outcome. The local population appreciates the importance of this iconic property within their city and Suffolk House continues to rely on the support of Penang’s civic institutions, commercial establishments and residents for its future development and lasting viability.

Project Impact

The Suffolk House project is a striking exemplar of the power of a guiding conservation methodology and the importance of public involvement. It also demonstrates how perseverance and a special vision can combine to save a place of undoubted historic and artistic worth.

The project’s supporters have sought to always share the process with the local community as well as with fellow specialists in the conservation field. Throughout the project, the team arranged for “work-in-progress” visits for architects, students, contractors, the media and the general public, in part to open up the work to the public and in part to build a foundation of awareness and support within the wider community. To further this goal, the board and architectural team also regularly briefed government officers and politicians on the progress of their work and on the problems facing those involved. This effort has paid off in terms of greater public awareness and support for conservation generally, as well as in gaining continuing assistance for the Suffolk House project.

Another positive benefit was a new attention to conservation on the part of the local government. The State Government of Penang appointed the Heritage of Malaysia Trust as the Heritage Site Manager and entrusted the trust with the task of ensuring that the use of the site is sustainable. This was the first time in Penang that a non-governmental organization was recognized as having the knowledge and experience to manage a historic site. With the success of Suffolk House, the project’s advocates hope that future conservation efforts may take the same direction and that the public and private sectors may continue the relationship of common support demonstrated in this exemplary restoration effort.

Quote from the Project Team

“Suffolk House is also the success story of local heritage advocacy and how it can be used to serve the local community, to represent its aspirations and its underlying passion for history, and to protect its beliefs, its traditions and its legacies. Even government agencies, usually not exposed to conservation issues, concerns and practice, have benefited from the debate.”