The Last Shophouses of Orchard Road

Orchard Road, Singapore’s most famous shopping street, is best known for its glitzy shopping malls, towering structures of steel and glass that stretch on block after block. But if you venture down to the road’s lower end, you’ll find yourself right back in the 1920s.

This 1921 Dutch-gabled beauty, once home to Middle East Films and later to the SPCK Bookshop, has seen better days — the paint is peeling, and the first floor now stands empty. But it’s still a wonder. And right next door is the Malayan Motor Building:

Beginning in 1927, you could go to this Art Deco/Modernist showroom to buy cars made by the likes of Morris, Daimler, Jaguar, and Rolls Royce — and an innovative indoor ramp meant that you could view vehicles on two different levels.

The classiest (and most recently renovated) building on the block is the Temasek Shophouse:

Constructed in 1928, this art deco/classical building originally had offices and The Art Furniture Depot showroom on the ground floor and large apartments above. It was one of the first buildings in Singapore to feature spiral staircases in the back.

In the 1980s, the building was turned into a department store; now, it houses a “social impact hub” where you can go to meetings, see exhibits, or have a cup of coffee while you sit on these cute little stools …

… under this giant green wall:

Right now, you can also go to the Temasek Shophouse to get your free Singapore masks from a vending machine!

There’s also a tiny garden out back where there are places for visitors to sit, look at the flowers, and get away from the city:

If you keep walking south, you’ll transition from the 1920s to the next decade. Here you’ll find the Cathay, a 1939 triumph once famous for its 1,300-seat air conditioned theater (a tremendous treat for pre-war Singaporeans).

The Cathay was also built to house residences, restaurants, a dance hall, and a roof-top garden. During WWII, it briefly became a Red Cross station; then, when the Japanese invaded, it was turned into a station for broadcasting Japanese propaganda. After the war, it returned to life as a cinema once again — and while there have been many changes to the building since that time, the Cathay is still home to a theater (but just one of the run-of-the mill mall variety).

A total anachronism in this stretch of Orchard Road is the 1949 MacDonald House.

Designed in the Neo-Gothic style, this was the first office building constructed in Singapore after World War II. First constructed as a bank, it was the first building to be fully air conditioned in all of Southeast Asia — and is the only brick edifice still standing on Orchard Road.

Most people head to Orchard Road for shopping — but if you’re willing to wander out of the malls and into the sunshine, these buildings are worth a look!

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