Preserving City Hall’s colonial charm

Besides being a national monument, the two-storey City Hall building at the Esplanade, Penang, has a significant historical and architectural value. 

Built in 1903 in the typical British Palladian architectural style, the building has been listed as a national monument since 1982 under the Antiquities Act 1976. 

It currently houses the Penang Municipal Council Chambers and two departments – the Licensing and the Urban Services departments. 

It is believed that the building was specifically built to house council/municipal offices in the early days. 

The design of the City Hall building bears a resemblance to the nearby Town Hall, which features the balcony as a main element overlooking the Esplanade. 

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Housing, Building and Planning’s Assoc Prof Dr A. Ghafar Ahmad in his paper ‘Restoration and Refurbishment of Old City Hall, George Town, Penang’, said the building, like most other heritage buildings, became susceptible to deterioration. The paper was written together with architect Haris Fadzilah Abdul Rahman. 

“Therefore, the restoration of the City Hall building is an important milestone in efforts to conserve one of Malaysia’s invaluable heritage buildings. 

“From an economic viewpoint, heritage buildings are lucrative assets in promoting tourism, especially in Penang,” he added. 

The Penang Municipal Council had allocated RM3.58mil to restore and refurbish three-quarters of the ground level of the building which was found to be structurally unsound. 

Arkitek Urbanisma Sdn Bhd executive director Nik Rahiman Nik Mohd Taib, whose firm was responsible for the restoration works, said the project was carried out in two stages between April 2004 and April 2005. 

Stage One involved the restoration of the building structures and elements, salt desalination and termite treatment while Stage Two included the interior refurbishment of the council chamber, main lobby, councillors’ offices, mezzanine floor, dining hall and toilets. 

“The refurbishing of the City Hall building came about because of the poor condition of the structure,” he said. 

He added that this posed a challenge in retaining the authentic building structures and fabric whilst fulfilling the functional requirements of an office environment. 

Nik Rahiman said the restoration and refurbishment works were coordinated to enhance the architectural significance of the building. 

“Temporary wall panels were removed to retain the originality of the interior and new tessellated tiles were used as the floor finish for areas like the main lobby to match the original design and colour,” he added. 

He said while preserving its old charm, it was also important for the building to fulfil its functional requirements of a modern administrative office. 

“For this, the Council Chamber was equipped with state-of-the-art conferencing system, including audio visual, computer, Internet networking and LCD projector,” he said. 

Nik Rahiman added that as the building owner, the council should be commended for its efforts to put aside funds to restore and conserve the building. 

“The council was keen in realising the spirit of conservation even though the cost of restoring just three-quarters of the ground floor alone had come up to RM3.5mil,” he said.