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Tuesday November 10, 2009

Iversen’s Ipoh

Danish architect Iversen was responsible for building many famous landmarks in Ipoh.

AS THE wife of a British diplomat, Ruth Iversen Rollitt has travelled widely, and has been to some of the most exotic and exciting places in the world. However, Ipoh is the city that has found a special place in her heart because she spent her happy childhood days there with her parents.

It is also the city that her father, Danish architect Berthel Michael Iversen, had his firm, Iversen, van Smitteren & Partners. The firm had branches in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Status symbol: Berthel Michael Iversen in a moment of jest while inspecting a building he designed in Ipoh.

Rollitt, who was back in Ipoh recently on the invitation of the Perak Heritage Society to give a talk on the works of her father, said Iversen was responsible for the construction of many famous landmark buildings, and at least 40 cinemas by Shaw Brothers and Cathay in the country and Singapore.

He was also responsible for the building of government buildings, hospitals, schools, radio stations, churches and houses.

According to Ken Yeang in Architecture Of Malaysia, “it became an indication of status among Ipoh’s wealthy businessmen to own an Iversen-designed house”.

Iversen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1906. He was the seventh and youngest child in the family, and was baptised Berthel after the famous Danish sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen in the hope that the name would inspire him to be a great artist.

“Obviously, it worked. He was born with a talent for drawing. He studied architecture at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and was tempted by an offer from his elder brother, Werner, to go to the Far East with him. Werner had been a planter in Malaya since 1918,” said Ruth, 71, in an interview.

Jubilee Park, once the centre for entertainment in Ipoh.

Iversen arrived in Malaya in 1928 and worked for two architectural firms before starting his own in Ipoh in 1936.

Some of his notable achievements in the early years in Malaya included supervising the construction of the Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur, designing the grandstand at the Ipoh race course, working on the design for the Capital Cinema in Singapore, and the Grand Hotel, Merchantile Bank and the Lam Looking Bazaar in Ipoh.

His own firm was later involved in designing prefab houses, Ipoh Swimming Club, MCA building and Geological Survey building in Ipoh, the Loke Yew Building in Kuala Lumpur, the Chinese Swiming Club in Penang and private houses for the rich.

In 1950, while recuperating after the removal of his right kidney in Denmark, his design for a post office savings bank in Malaya won him a prize of $5,000 (then). The building later became the Federal House and was opened by British High Commissioner Donald MacGillvray in 1954.

In 1966, he decided to retire and left the business to his son Per and his Chinese partners.

The Lido Cinema in Ipoh designed by B.M. Iversen. The building is now a restaurant

Iversen then hired a car and drove through the country that treated him so well, “saying goodbye to every nook and cranny”, described Ruth.

Per left the country in 1972 while Iversen died of cancer of the oesophagus in 1976 at the age of 70 in Copenhagen.

“He was a wonderful man who loved us very much. Even while he was dying, I used to sit with him and he would relate stories to me. He was a good artist and gave my mother a book of his drawings. The book was called Unfinished Symphony and he would add two new pages of his work to his book for my mother every Christmas Day,” said Ruth.

“I want people to realise that not everybody from the West came to Malaya to get rich. There were those who gave everything they had for the country. Their contributions to the nation should also be remembered and not swept aside just because they were foreigners,” she added.

During her visit to Ipoh, Ruth was sad to find that many of the houses her father designed had been demolished while others that remained had been modified, which according to her, were not for the better.

Ruth Iversen Rollitt with photogrraphs of buildings designed by her father B.M. Iversen.

She plans to write a book on her father’s work so that his name would be remembered in Malaysia.

Ruth herself also could not forget the sweet and bitter memories of her stay in Perak as a child, and later as a young bride.

Born in Batu Gajah on Nov 5, 1938, she was raised at 110, Tambun Road, a house her father built for the family in Ipoh.

“When I was a child, my father would take us out for rides in his car in the evenings. We would go round the town and he would point out the houses he designed to us. It was like a lesson in architecture,” she said.

Ruth said the family would occasionally have the famous Ipoh chicken koay teow and satay at roadside stalls in Cowan Street, and Indian food near the Ipoh railway station.

Ruth, Per and their parents evacuated to Australia during WWII.

The family returned to Ipoh when peace was declared. Ruth and Per were sent to boarding school in Denmark and furthered their studies there.

“Per and I would come home to Ipoh during the holidays. It took us days to fly from Copenhagen to Ipoh those days.

“During a trip home in 1948, Per and I were the first youngest children to board a KLM plane unescorted in Copenhagen. When the plane landed in Amsterdam, we found pressmen waiting to interview us and take our photographs,” said Ruth, adding that she and Per then had to transit in Rome, a city in the Middle East, Karachi, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur before flying on a Fokker Friendship plane to Ipoh.

Ruth married Donald Baxter, a rubber planter in Perak in 1962 and had her first son at the Batu Gajah hospital a year later.

“I first met Donald during a ball at the Sultan’s palace in Kuala Kangsar. We were married in Scotland and the wedding gown I wore on that day was made by a female friend from Ipoh,” she said.

She spent the first year as a planter’s wife with Donald happily at the Riverside Rubber Estate near Tanjung Tualang, about 30km from Ipoh.

“I had no problems adapting to life at the estate, being brought up in Ipoh. It was like an adventure. I was busy setting up home. I had two Alsatians, two cats and we even reared chickens. It was one of the happiest moments in my life when I discovered that I was expecting a child,” she said.

However, tragedy struck when the baby was five weeks old. Donald and his driver were killed during a RM13,000 payroll robbery at the estate in 1963. The culprits were caught the same day. Donald was buried at the God’s Little Acre cemetery in Batu Gajah. Ruth then returned to live with her father in Ipoh.

Two months later, Ruth decided that life had to go on and took the baby to visit her father-in-law in Scotland. It was also a time of sadness for her father-in-law as he had not only lost a son but his wife had also died.

In 1969, Ruth married Philip Rollitt, a British diplomat and they had postings in Denmark, London, Singapore, Islamabad, Bonn and Tokyo. They are now retired and live in London.

Ruth had two more sons, Nicholas Iversen Rollitt, a consultant geriatrician at a London hospital and Peter Iversen Rollitt, a computer scientist who is now a Mathematics teacher at a public school in Surrey.

Her Malayan born son, Donald Henry Iversen Baxter, now lives in Sydney with his wife and twin daughters.