Former St Joseph’s Institution (Singapore Art Museum)

Singapore Infopedia


Bound by Queen StreetBras Basah Road and Waterloo Street, the former building of the boys’ school St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) was completed in 1867. The school premises comprised a cluster of blocks built between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, featuring a classical style reminiscent of the European Renaissance.In 1988, the school moved to its current location on Malcolm Road.2 The old building was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992, and now houses the Singapore Art Museum.3

Establishment and extensions
The history of the former SJI building began with Father Jean-Marie Beurel,  who was instrumental in raising funds not only for this boys’ school,4 but also for the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (present site of CHIJMES).5 Beurel raised money for the boys’ school after establishing the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1847, as he felt strongly that “a church without a school is like a king without progeny”.6

Beurel’s hopes for a school were fulfilled in May 1852, when SJI was opened at the premises of the first Roman Catholic church in Singapore, which had been built in 1833.7 On 19 March 1855, the foundation stone for the SJI building was laid.8 Because of a lack of funds, however, the building was completed only in 1867.9

In 1865, Brother Lothaire Combes became the SJI’s new director.10 He sought to construct a new building, and obtained funding through the sale of the brothers’ property on Mount Sophia, through a public appeal, and by borrowing from the convent.11

In 1900, the American-educated Irish Brother Michael Noctor took charge of the school. He is credited for introducing some of the school’s more distinctive features.12 With the help of Father Charles-Benedict Nain, Noctor extended the original building by adding two wings, a dome and various other features for which the building remains well known today.13 Noctor also had another block built known as the Anderson Building, which opened in 1907.14 The school’s diamond jubilee (60th anniversary) was celebrated with the opening of King George’s Hall in September 1912.15

Central block
Dating back to 1855, the design of the building’s central structure is typical of French 19th-century religious architecture.16 The rectangular two-storey block had a small belfry, which was replaced by a dome in 1903.17 When completed in 1867, the ground floor of the block included classrooms, while the upper floor served as accommodation for the brothers and student boarders. The hall was an open shed located in the yard, with unpaved ground and shade from a few trees.18

Noctor further developed the central block by adding a dining and study hall on the Queen Street side of the compound. Rising enrolment meant that new classrooms were needed.19 After consultation with the engineering firm Swan & Maclaren regarding the foundation of the building, plans to build a third floor were abandoned. Lateral extensions were made instead with the addition of two wings.20 Arranged in a semi-circle, the wings were designed by Nain in a baroque style, with a two-storey colonnade and a dome uniting the design with the original block.21 Dedicated in February 1903, the expanded building was at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful in the East.22 It also had a porte-cochère and a verandah at the front of the block. The back verandah was added in 1910.23

Anderson Building
Opened on 2 August 1907, the classical Anderson Building was designed by Robert Hamilton.24 Although Noctor managed to raise funds for its construction, especially from wealthy Straits Chinese businessman Tan Jiak Kim, the price of steel had risen so much that the cost exceeded the original estimate by $12,000. An appeal was thus made to then Governor John Anderson, which led to a government grant funding the construction. The building, opened by Anderson, was thus named after him. When completed, the Anderson Building housed classrooms for the rapidly expanding school, and had a central staircase that projected into the courtyard.25

Chapel building
With the completion of Anderson Building, Noctor set about building a new hall and chapel.26 Designed by C. Himsley, the two-storey block had a hall with arches on the ground floor and a chapel above it.27 Named King George’s Hall, it was then the largest hall in Singapore and was also a gymnasium.28

The completion of the chapel was delayed because its stained glass did not arrive from Europe on time.29 In 1940, a stage and changing rooms were added to the hall below. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), the stained glass was moved to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, but was never recovered thereafter. In 1951, the chapel building was enclosed with all its arches flattened.30

Brothers’ quarters
In the 1930s, a three-storey art-deco block was added to serve as the brothers’ quarters and to offer more classroom space. It had brick walls and circular windows by the staircase.31

Statue of de La Salle
The former SJI building is well known for its statue of St John Baptist de La Salle, standing with a child on either side. Donated by a descendant of de La Salle, the statue was installed at the building in 1913. The statue was designed by Cesare Aureli, a famous 19th-century sculptor of religious statues, and its design was based on a larger version found in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.32 Even though SJI was moved to its current location in 1988, the statue of de La Salle has remained at its original premises. A replica of the statue made in China was installed at the school’s new premises in March 1988.33

Japanese Occupation
During World War II, the school grounds were used by both the British and Japanese at various times. Prior to the fall of Singapore, the British used the premises for military casualties. The site later became temporary barracks for the Japanese when they invaded Singapore.34 During the occupation, the school was known as the Bras Basah Boys’ School.35

SJI was relocated to Malcolm Road in 1988, following which the building on Bras Basah Road underwent extensive conservation work at a cost of S$30 million.36 It was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992, before reopening on 20 October 1995 as Singapore Art Museum.37

During the conservation process, the central block, Anderson Building and chapel were retained, while the brothers’ quarters, badminton hall and building for extra-curricular activities were demolished.38 Two modern staircases added in 1950 were also removed during the conservation process.39

The conservation work sought to retain as many of the original details as possible, including the plasterwork of the facade at the main entrance, the roof patina, and the roof and floor tiles. The conservators and architects were able to be faithful to the building’s original structure, while adapting it to the stringent requirements of an art museum. The resultant Singapore Art Museum has 13 galleries, all climate-controlled. The chapel was converted into an auditorium, while the hall below it is now known as the Glass Hall.40

Bonny Tan

1. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, The Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, vol. 1 (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1992), 11, 13 (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 FOR); Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Recognising Quality Restoration, 1994–1998 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1998), 42. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 REC)

2. “Work to Convert Old SJI into Fine Arts Museum to Begin Soon,” Straits Times, 19 July 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Julia Goh, “22 Monuments to Get Identifying Plaques from Today,” Straits Times, 27 November 1992, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Recognising Quality Restoration, 42; “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 22 June 1848, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

5. Hedwig Alfred, Living the Mission: The SJI Story, 1852–2002 (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2002), 10 (Call no. RSING q373.5957 ALF); “Caldwell’s House,” New Nation, 15 October 1971, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 54. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
6. Gloria Chandy, “Josephians’ (1852–1977) Jubilee,” New Nation, 3 February 1977, 10–11 (From NewspaperSG); Alfred, Living the Mission, 11.
7. “The Priest Whose Vision Gave Birth to SJI,” Straits Times, 8 April 1989, 20 (From NewspaperSG); Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 50.
8. Alfred, Living the Mission, 18; “Remembering the Old SJI,” Straits Times, 26 June 1993, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Chandy, “Josephians’ (1852–1977) Jubilee”; “Remembering the Old SJI.”
10. Alfred, Living the Mission, 25.
11. Francis Brown, Memories of SJI: Reminiscences of Old Boys and Past Teachers of St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore (Singapore: The Institution, 1987), 6. (Call no. RSING 372.95957 BRO)
12. “Celebrate 100 Yrs. in Malaya,” Sunday Standard, 6 April 1952, 2; “SJI Donates Portraits of Two Pioneers to Art Museum,” Straits Times, 27 December 1995, 25; “St. Joseph’s Has a Centenary,” Straits Times, 13 March 1952, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. National Heritage Board Singapore, Singapore Art Museum at the Old SJI (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1996), vii. (Call no. RSING 708.95957 SIN); “St. Joseph’s Has a Centenary.”
14. National Heritage Board Singapore, Singapore Art Museum at the Old SJI, viii.
15. “St. Joseph’s Institution,” Straits Times, 24 September 1912, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Recognising Quality Restoration, 42; National Heritage Board Singapore, Singapore Art Museum at the Old SJI, viii; Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 6.
17. Alfred, Living the Mission, 25.
18. Alfred, Living the Mission, 38; Francis Brown, Memories of SJI, 9.
19. Alfred, Living the Mission, 38–39.
20. Brown, Memories of SJI, 9; Alfred, Living the Mission, 39.
21. National Heritage Board Singapore, Singapore Art Museum at the Old SJI, vii; Brown, Memories of SJI, 11.
22. Alfred, Living the Mission, 39.
23. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 25; Alfred, Living the Mission, 42.
24. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 26; Alfred, Living the Mission, 41–42.
25. Alfred, Living the Mission, 41–42, 111; Brown, Memories of SJI, 12.
26. Alfred, Living the Mission, 42.
27. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 27.
28. Alfred, Living the Mission, 42; Tan Chew Moi, A History of Saint Joseph’s Institution 1852–1945 (Singapore: National University, 1986), 45–47. (Call no. RSING 373.5957 TAN); Francis Brown, La Salle Brothers: Malaya & Singapore, 1852–1952 (Petaling Jaya: La Salle Provincialate, 1997), 134. (Call no. RSING 271.78 BRO)
29. Alfred, Living the Mission, 42.
30. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 27; Work to Convert Old SJI.”
31. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 28; Tan, History of Saint Joseph’s Institution, 51.
32. Edmund Loh, “Dilemma for SJI: Should Statue Be Moved?Straits Times, 15 January 1987, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Brown, Memories of SJI, 14.
33. “Work to Convert Old SJI”; “Statue Sculpted in China Gets Pride of Place at New SJI,” Straits Times, 20 March 1988, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Alfred, Living the Mission, 57; Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 5.
35. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 108.
36. “Work to Convert Old SJI”; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 108.
37. Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, “Gazette of Former Tao Nan School, Former Ministry of Labour Building and Maghain Aboth Synagogue as National Monuments,” press release, 29 February 1998. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 1998022804); Phan Ming Yen, “From School to Museum: Architect’s Labour of Love,” Straits Times, 25 October 1995, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Former St Joseph’s Institution Preservation Guidelines, 33;Work to Convert Old SJI.”
39. Alfred, Living the Mission, 111; Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Recognising Quality Restoration, 42.
40. Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Recognising Quality Restoration, 42; National Heritage Board Singapore, Singapore Art Museum at the Old SJI, viii.

The information in this article is valid as at June 2021 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Queen Street


Located in the Civic District, Queen Street is a one-way street that connects Arab Street to the junction of Stamford Road and Armenian Street. Named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the street was part of the Eurasian enclave in Singapore’s past, and had...

Swan & Maclaren


The famous colonial architectural firm Swan & Maclaren had its beginnings in 1887 as Swan & Lermit. It is considered to be one of the pioneer architectural firms in Singapore. Archibald Swan and Alfred Lermit, started Swan & Lermit, but the latter left the partnership in 1890. Swan, an engineer...

Outram Prison (Pearl’s Hill Prison)


One of Singapore’s earliest prisons was located at the foot of Pearl’s Hill in Outram. The original civil jail at the site was built in 1847 by Charles Edward Faber; in 1882, a new prison complex was built around the old civil jail by J. F. A. McNair. Originally known...

American Club


The American Club is a community and social club set up on 14 September 1948. The club provides recreational and community services for its members. These include having a meal at Thyme Café or Eagle’s Nest, finding a good read in its library of 20,000 books, working offsite at the...

Behn, Meyer & Co.


Behn, Meyer & Co. was established in Singapore on 1 November 1840 as a partnership between two Germans, Theodor August Behn and Valentin Lorenz Meyer. In its initial years, the firm traded in tropical produce such as coconut oil, pepper, camphor and rattan, but subsequently ventured into shipping and insurance....

Masonic Hall


The Masonic Hall at 23A Coleman Street is located near the Central Fire Station at the foot of Fort Canning Hill. Designed by Thomas A Cargill, a municipal engineer and a Freemason, the foundation stone of the Masonic Hall was laid in April 1879. The building was consecrated on 27...

Sri Krishnan Temple


Sri Krishnan Temple was established on Waterloo Street in 1870. It is the only South Indian Hindu temple in Singapore dedicated exclusively to Sri Krishna and his consort Rukmini. ...

Duxton Road


Duxton Road is a one-way street that connects Neil Road to Craig Road. Situated on Duxton Hill, this road was infamous in the 19th and early 20th centuries for its opium and gambling dens. ...

Tanglin Barracks


The Tanglin Barracks was built by George Chancellor Collyer in 1861 for European troops. The barracks served the British garrison infantry battalion until the fall of Singapore in 1942. After the war, it was home to the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces until the withdrawal of British...

Sri Temasek


Sri Temasek is a 19th-century bungalow designated as the prime minister’s official residence. It was formerly the residence of the colonial secretary. While the house has been unoccupied since 1959, it was used regularly for meetings and official social events during the 1960s and 1970s. The building deteriorated during a...