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History of CHIJMES

At the heart of Singapore’s Civic District and amid urban surroundings, located at 30 Victoria Street, is CHIJMES, a popular destination that hosts an array of nightlife venues and lifestyle services. Passing through the white-colored gates at the main entrance in front of the Gothic Revival chapel or other points of entry at cloistered walls on Bras Basah or North Bridge Roads takes the visitor to the self-contained architectural block, consisting of buildings from different eras. The structures are formed around courtyards, an accommodating feature for their historical use and which continue to radiate their roles from an earlier time.

CHIJMES, pronounced “chimes,” is an acronym for Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School. It is part of the Catholic convent of CHIJ, and the schools it governs today trace their history to this structure, going back to the mid-19th century. The present name was adopted in 1990 when the structure had already ceased to be used in its previous capacity.

Located at the corner of Victoria Road and Bras Basah Road is the oldest structure at CHIJMES –and the second oldest building in Singapore after the Arts House (1827) – known as Caldwell House, built in 1840-1841 and named after HC Caldwell, a Magistrates senior clerk. It was designed by Irish architect George Drumgoole Coleman, who also designed the Armenian Church at Hill Street. In the early 1850s, French priest Father Jean-Marie Beurel purchased parcels of land for a girls’ school and Caldwell House for the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus. There, four Sisters, led by French nun Mother Mathilde Raclot, took residence after they arrived in 1854. Shortly after, the Sisters founded the Home for Abandoned Babies, an orphanage and refuge, and began building the walls facing the above streets. In 1855, the first chapel of the Convent was built. Mother Mathilde later moved to Yokohama, Japan, in the 1870s to do similar work.

During the following decades, a Convent primary school was established with more land and extensions acquired, including the opening in 1892 of a building for the boarding department to oversee and manage fee-paying boarding residents.

By then, the chapel had been in such a deteriorated and unsafe condition that a new chapel was proposed in 1890. Designed by a French priest and architect, Father Charles Benedict Nain, the current structure was completed by 1903 and consecrated in 1904. Known as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel, its design consists of stained-glass windows imported from Belgium, Gothic-arched linkways, 648 capitals on the columns, spiral iron staircases, and its five-story spire is flanked by flying buttresses marking the entrance of the chapel.

Later developments include a recreation hall and school rooms added in the early 1910s, a dormitory completed adjoining the orphanage in 1929, and the acquisition of Hotel Van Wijk comprising four bungalows along Stamford Road, one of which was where Saint Nicholas Girls’ School was established in 1933. The School also incorporated the structures mentioned above that had been added two decades earlier.

The Convent didn’t escape the Battle of Singapore and the subsequent Occupation. On February 15, 1942, the same day British and Commonwealth forces surrendered, four bombs landed on the complex during a Japanese air raid, including the orphanage’s destruction. During the Occupation, 40 of the Sisters, along with teachers and orphans, were deported to a camp in Malaya, whereas some non-British Sisters, being required to wear armbands to indicate so, stayed at the Convent. The school reopened under Japanese authority as Victoria Street Girls’ School two months into the Occupation. The Sisters were required to learn the Japanese language to teach the students as it became part of the curriculum. The school resumed under its former name after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The 1950s and 1960s saw continued structural and organizational changes. The bungalows were demolished in 1950 after being deemed unsafe (a room had collapsed the previous year) making way for a three-story secondary school along Victoria Street to be completed in 1951.

The gallery, which served as an assembly hall for the primary and secondary schools, was completed in 1952. The Boarding House was closed in 1963 due to dwindling demand, and the school was separated into primary and secondary sections in 1964.

Only able to accommodate some students, St. Nicholas Girls initially relocated to Toa Payoh in 1982. In coordination with this move, as well as the move of the Convent, the Singapore Government purchased the Convent in 1983. The last mass was held in the Chapel on November 3, 1983, followed by its de-consecration. In 1985-1987, the school buildings were razed to make way for the headquarters of the Mass Rapid Transport (MRT), and the remaining buildings were handed back to the Singapore government in 1989.

The structure was renamed CHIJMES in 1990, the pronunciation of which draws attention to its tower bells. On October 26 of that year, the Chapel and Caldwell House were gazetted as National Monuments, while the remaining buildings were gazetted for conservation.

Extensive restoration commenced in 1991, lasting until 1996, when CHIJMES was opened to the public. Several modifications have occurred since, including a $45 million facelift in 2013.

In CHIJMES’s current capacity, the former Chapel, renamed CHIJMES Hall, continues to be arguably the most iconic landmark. With its awe, charm, and ambiance, it is a venue for weddings and corporate functions. The currently-named Alcove at Caldwell House also hosts weddings at its semi-circular Grand Gallery on level two. Most tenants include bars and pubs, cafes, restaurants, and lifestyle services located throughout CHIJMES. As you patronize any of these or stroll down the corridors, take time to absorb the quaint surroundings and reflect on its 180-year history.

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