On the map and in such archival records, Mount Sophia shows up as the name of a street and of a hill in the Rochor area of Singapore. Topographically, it is part of a series of hills that includes Mount Emily to the north, as well as Fort Canning further down south. Bounding Mount Sophia are Sophia Road, Mount Sophia (the road), and Adis Road; the three roads skirt the foothills to trace a teardrop loop. The drive is a gentle bend uphill, and for those who are inclined to go on foot, a flight of steps, accessible from Handy Road, offers a steep, straight-up hike. Although the original staircase has since been rebuilt, it is still fondly called ‘The Hundred Steps’.
Mount Sophia was known as
In its earliest documentation, Mount Sophia was known as Bukit Seligi, bearing the name of the local nibong palm — a tall, slender species distinctive for its rather alarming thorn-covered trunk. It was not until the colonial period that the hill was given its western name: first as Flint’s Hill — after Captain William Flint, the colony’s first Master Attendant who lived on the hill; then renamed Mount Sophia by Flint—in honour of Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles’ second wife, Lady Sophia Raffles, and Flint’s own daughter, Mary Sophia Anne. Flint grew spices on the hill for years.
The hill was later sold to Charles Robert Prinsep, who also owned the adjacent Bukit Cawa (the present Mount Emily). Prinsep was a nutmeg mogul and cultivated plantations on his hills. His estate extends all the way to what is today’s Istana grounds. Mount Sophia’s elevation above lowland flooding and its proximity to the genteel neighbourhood of Orchard Road made it an ideal address for the well-heeled. During Prinsep’s time, grand mansions were already erected on the hill. Theodor August Behn and Valentin Lorenz Meyer (of Behn, Meyer & Co, which, in these early days, traded in tropical produce such as coconut oil and pepper) were some of the listed hills residents in 1842.
Through the 1860s, as the colony population grew, Prinsep started to parcel the land out for sale. By the early 1900s, many more houses had sprung up on the hill, as can be seen in town maps from that time. Likely the most elaborate mansion there was the Eu Villa, the family mansion of Eu Tong Sen built in 1913. Located halfway up the hill, the lavish property was so large it kept five watchmen and a pack of thoroughbred Alsatians, Mastiffs and Great Danes on guard. The villa boasted of a dining room that could seat over a hundred guests; as well as a ballroom that was as big as Raffles Hotel’s and that overlooked just two of Eu Villa’s many tennis courts. The residence has been described as ‘magical’ and ‘castle- like’ in accounts — its fairy-tale status sealed in popular imagination when the villa was sadly demolished in the 1980s.
Over the years, the area was also home and social ground for various communities. In particular, many Sikh and Jewish families settled there. Traces of their lives can still be seen in some of the community buildings that pepper the hill and its surrounds today. Landmarks featured on heritage and interest tours include Sophia Flats. Standing at the entrance of Mount Sophia, this 1930s building was where Jewish immigrant Frank Benjamin had lived in and set up his first office after the war. Not far away, the David Elias building bearing the six-pointed Star of David bas- relief on its façade also reflects the heritage of its Jewish owner.
Mount Sophia was gazetted on 1 December 2003 as Mount Sophia Conservation Area, serving as a physical link between the Civic District and the Little India Historic District.
1928 - The oldest of the three conserved buildings is the Olson Building of Methodist Girls’ School, built in 1928 to the design of prominent English architect, Frank Wilmin Brewer. It was originally called Cambridge Building and housed six classrooms catered for students taking the Cambridge examinations. From 2007 to 2012, the two-storey structure was used as offices of the art enclave ‘Old School’. Characteristic architectural elements to look out for include the building’s French windows, timber shutters, lattice lights and louvered terracotta parapet vents.
1941 - Nan Hwa Girls’ School was designed by architectural practice Chung & Wong and was completed in 1941.
As a modern Chinese school, the three storey building displayed aesthetic influences from Art Deco. It was finished in textured cement render, with two symmetrical pitched-roof wings for classrooms, and a projecting portico in the centre. Notable architectural features include the precast wall vents and toplight lattice used in various combinations with windows, as well as the sleek cantilevered horizontal sunshading fins that go around the perimeter of the building on the 2nd & 3rd storey.
1969 - Trinity Theological College Chapel was designed by Edwin Chan Kui Chuan.
Completed in 1969, the building had been an exemplar of mature tropical church design. The chapel boasts a modern tropical design replete with religious symbolism in its form, layout, and ornamentation. The sculptural roof form was derived from the Chinese character ‘人’ , stand for ‘man’. The column free space beneath the sweeping roof planes used to accommodate a 150-strong congregation. Look out for the chapel’s stained glass’ features, which are in fact not made of traditional stained glass with lead beadings, but plexiglass panels. This was a progressive and experimental material choice at the time; unfortunately the material does not age well and the feature has to be replicated in more permanent materials.
In Greek, sophia means wisdom. It is a beautiful coincidence that Mount Sophia should be home to so many notable schools and institutions of learning through its history. Three old buildings — two built before the war, one in the 1960s — of three different institutions stand on very the site of Sophia Hills. They are the Olson Building of the old campus of the Methodist Girls’ School, the former Nan Hwa Girls’ School, and the former Trinity Theological College Chapel. Slated for conservation by the URA in August 2011, all three buildings bear distinctive historical value. To preserve the architectural heritage of these landmarks, conservation specialists Studio Lapis was engaged to provide consultancy service for the study, addition and alteration, and integration of the buildings into the premises of Sophia Hills. Tan Kar Lin, a partner at Studio Lapis, shares that proper conservation work involves the study of buildings in their entirety. Restoration should be considered for both within and without the structure. Tan shares, ‘While the exterior of a historic building may be its most prominent aspect, or its “public face”, heritage interiors effectively immerse visitors in the building’s history. Unlike interior décor of today, architectural interiors of historic buildings were conceived as an integral part of the building design and character. Important elements include architectural features such as staircases, columns, beams, and openings, and the various finishes and materials that make up walls, floors and ceilings.’ Tan also points out that the ambience and character of historic architectural interiors reflect the fine craftsmanship by tradesmen of a past era — something worth careful conservation: ‘These are often not replicable as many building materials are out of production, while skill traditions and workmanship have declined. These original features are distinctive markers of the buildings’ architectural and historical pedigree. The material palette of a bygone era impart colour, texture, and patterns, bringing forth vivid imageries and memories.’