Charming escape in nature’s embrace


Eythrope Bungalow enjoys an uninterrupted panoramic views to the city.

AROUND the world, hills have long been regarded as places to escape the hustle and bustle of life.

Whether it is the crisper air, majestic vistas or untouched natural beauty, the lofty locales can bring one a sense of rejuvenation and upliftment.

Penang Hill is a great example - having been used by colonial gentry seeking refuge from the heat of the tropical lowlands from the early 19th century onwards.

They initially built rudimentary bungalows made of wood and bamboo, with water drawn from natural springs and only oil lamps or candles for lighting. Reaching the top was no easy task either, with journeys on horseback or coolie-manned carriages taking up to two hours each way.

Yet fascination with “the great hill” as it was popularly known, steadily grew. This led to the construction of the funicular railway in 1923. With that, came a new wave of modern residences.

Among the earlier was Eythrope, built by Edward Bulford and completed in 1929. Nestled on the hill’s eastward-facing slope at a high elevation, it overlooked the island’s eastern seaboard.

During the Second World War, the bungalow and many others along the Summit Road were commandeered by Japanese forces and used as getaways for high-ranking officers and VIP guests. After the end of the conflict in 1945, the property was swiftly reclaimed by Allied authorities and returned to its original owner.

Bulford’s wife, Ida Margaret May Bulford, eventually sold it to Datuk Saw Choo Theng and Tan Sri Saw Seng Kew for the sum of $70,000 Straits Dollars in 1951.

The art deco-inspired property has been with the Saw family ever since. They used it as a treasured retreat for decades. But they only spent about a month each year in Eythrope. And with the property getting rundown over time, a decision was made to renovate and modernise the house.

Being a Category 2 Heritage Building that possessed significant architectural qualities in its exterior and interior, the renovation and interior design had to be sensitive and measured.

Master bath with a view.Master bath with a view.

Work started in 2021 and was completed two years later. It reopened in late 2023 as a luxury boutique hotel.

“We wanted to share what the family had enjoyed over the years with more people from not only Penang, but also around the world,” said Mark Saw, Choo Theng’s grandson.

The new Eythrope retained most of its original features and character - but added plush modern comforts for present-day visitors. And those who have spent a night, have waxed lyrical about the unique experiences they enjoyed and the memories they created.

The bungalow now stands as a testament to how an empathetic touch can breathe a second life to an aging heritage building.

This was recognised with a win in the Heritage Category of the Malaysia Property Award™ 2023 by FIABCI Malaysia.

A special house on the hill

In his book The Bungalows of Penang Hill, author Mike Gibby posits that the property was named after a village called Eythrope in Buckinghamshire, southern England.

The word “eyt” likely came from the Old English word “eyot” which meant a small island in a river. And there certainly is a small island in the River Thame near where the village is located.

Meanwhile, “thorpe” is Old English for a small hamlet or village, which over time was corrupted to “thrope”.

“So, a logical explanation of the name could be - a small hamlet near the islet in the river.

“After Ida Bulford sold the bungalow to my grandfather and granduncle, they went back to Dorset and gave the same name to their house there,” Mark shared.

A name alone would not mean much had the building been stripped of its original character. Which is why the Saw family sought out an architect known for her work in the field of adaptive reuse of heritage buildings in her native Penang and beyond.

Award-winning architect Tan Bee Eu, founder of BEu Tan Architect BETA, was struck by the homely vibes and strong sense of place upon her first visit to the bungalow.

She realised then, the best approach was to adopt an honest design expression, by allowing the bungalow to be herself and echo the happy memories it brought to its two owners’ families over the years.

“Renovation was carried out consistent with heritage building guidelines to restore and reinstate the original characteristics of the bungalow.

“Existing roof tiles, external wall finishes, wooden windows and the wooden staircase were painstakingly restored to their original designs,” Mark pointed out.

But the masterstroke was in the flooring. The existing timber floor had layers of dark walnut-coloured varnish painted on over the years which made spaces feel heavy and sombre.

So the core transformation came from sanding down all the darker wooden varnish, and letting the lighter original timber tones shine through with matte-clear varnish.

This made the ambience feel brighter and more welcoming, which tied into the vast sweeping vistas of George Town, the Penang Channel and Butterworth that greeted visitors when they threw open the windows or stepped out onto Eythrope’s beautiful outdoor timber deck.

The property now offers five accommodation types for visitors - two family suites and three bedrooms. Each was curated to offer a unique experience.

The suites are named after the Punchinello and Lacewing butterflies and measure 843sq ft (78.4sqm) and 792sq ft (74sqm) respectively. The bedrooms are named after orchids, specifically Purple Rain, Wispy Umbrella and Tiger, and measure between 267sq ft to 312sq ft (25sqm to 29sqm).

As there was no structural hacking and no removal of columns during the renovation, the accommodations’ stylish interior design today also spoke volumes about the ingenious space planning.

“We had to get creative in carving out the rooms and suites to curate unique experiences in each one. We curated a calming palette of hues to avoid overpowering the elegance and architectural character of the original spaces.

“Vistas in every room were framed and celebrated as focal points, as they were part of what drew so many to Penang Hill over the centuries,” Mark continued.

Little design choices, such as placing beds to face the best views or ensuring that every window had a desk, daybed or lounger alongside it, contributes to the overall experience.

Reading lounge bathed in natural lighting.Reading lounge bathed in natural lighting.

As Penang Hill is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, guests wake up each morning to the sounds of nature - from the songs of birds to the clicks of insects and whirr of wind rushing through trees.

Sunrises are also spectacular when weather permits. Temperatures on the hill average between 20 to 27 degrees, so it is comfortable year round. It can also be a treat to walk through Eythrope’s hallways which are framed with curved timber arches.

“Faithful respect was observed on all existing arches. They were not only restored but also accentuated and highlighted as key features of the interior design.

“Overall, our approach was deliberately refrained. We wanted to be humble and honest in celebrating the original ambience of the bungalow, and pay homage to its original architectural design as well as the natural heritage that surrounds it,” Mark said.

Eythrope also has an airy dining room that seats up to 12 persons which is ideal for intimate gatherings. This is linked by a hallway to a cosy lounge, and also opens up to the outdoor deck where one can watch the entire cityscape come alive with lights at night while enjoying delicious meals prepared by chefs.

“The family is humbled by this Malaysia Property Award™ and see the recognition as an endorsement of our decision to restore the bungalow.

“We now look forward to positioning Eythrope in readiness to celebrate her 100th Anniversary in 2029,” Mark added.

Since January this year, the property has worked in conjunction with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), a global collection of independently spirited hotels. It currently comprises over 560 properties in 90 countries.

For more on Eythrope or to enjoy an unforgettable experience on Penang Hill, visit https://www.pghillluxuryvillas.my/

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