Star of the show

Star of the show

It has been almost two decades since the final credits rolled on the last movie shown at Capitol Theatre in 1998.

Since then, the 86-year-old cinema had stayed dark, even as buildings in the area such as the Singapore Management University campus sprung up, the old Chijmes got a facelift and other architectural hallmarks got torn down (adieu, Old National Library building.)

But finally, after a three-year renovation, the beloved Grande Dame is ready to show off the results of her stunning makeover.

Now, she is not just a cinema, but also a theatre. In fact, she is a multi-purpose venue that can host all kinds of events from luncheons to weddings.

Some old features are restored to their former glory, such as the stunning painted ceiling; while spiffy new touches, such as a high-tech automated seating system that hides seats in the ground, are installed.

The redevelopment of Capitol Theatre is part of a major heritage redevelopment project called Capitol Singapore, which aims to create a new lifestyle- entertainment cluster using both old and new buildings.

Besides Capitol Theatre, the two other conservation buildings are the Capitol Building, built in 1933, and Stamford House, which was completed in 1904.

Other than these gazetted buildings, the developments built include a new four-storey mall called Capitol Piazza-Neue, which is connected to City Hall MRT station via an underpass.

Luxury apartment project Eden Residences Capitol sits above Neue, while six-star hotel The Patina Capitol is housed in Capitol Building and Stamford House.

The entire integrated development is by Capitol Investment Holdings, a consortium backed by Perennial Real Estate Holdings and Pontiac Land Group and its affiliates.

The design and concept was helmed by celebrated New York-based architecture practice Richard Meier & Partners Architects, which worked together with local firm architects61 on the North Bridge Road development.

architects61 had worked on other historic projects such as the nearby Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton Hotel, a former 1920s government office building and post office.

The firm's chief executive officer Michael Ngu, 59, says the three conservation buildings were in poorer shape than he had imagined.

"Each time we removed the layers of these three buildings or scanned them, things weren't what we expected them to be. For example, the plaster was crumbling and the buildings sat on soil which didn't comply with today's building code.

"We never anticipated it would be in such bad condition. We thought only a portion needed to be repaired, but it was almost a total rebuild."

The Capitol Theatre, in particular, needed a lot of work, being left vacant for more than 10 years. It had falling plaster, missing ornaments and water seeping into its floors.

One of the most ambitious parts of the refurbishment was to introduce an automated seating system in the theatre that allows it to be a multi-purpose venue.

The theatre, which hosted live performances before it became solely a cinema in 1946, can now host both kinds of events and more.

Most of the seats in the first level stalls can be flipped over before being lowered into the ground, to achieve a totally flat, open floor conducive for luncheons, seminars and even weddings.

To make space for the seats to be stored, the architects had to dig a pit, about 2m deep, under the stalls - a delicate process as they had to avoid affecting the buildings' foundations. Steel structures had to be erected to hold the buildings' old walls as construction took place.

The backstage area has also been expanded. Now extended to 25m - it used to be a tight 2m-wide squeeze behind the screen - the stage also has a new fly tower for hanging props as well as swanky changing rooms.

But just as new additions were made to the space, careful restoration work went into redoing the old fixtures of the Art Deco building.

Architectural restoration and research consultancy Studio Lapis was brought in by architects61 to recreate Capitol Theatre's original features.

To do this, its staff pored over old photographs, building plans and newspaper articles. They also studied remaining ornaments, such as a column- like reed bunch with golden ribbon ties to recreate new lighter ones.

Studio Lapis' Ho Weng Hin, 40, a restoration specialist, says reconstructing the building was like playing detective and doctor. "It was like finding out what's wrong with the patient and what remedy we could use to make him better."

The process was long and tedious, as the team had to remove features that various owners had added on through time.

The first owner was Persian businessman Mohammed Ali Namazie, who built the theatre in 1929. In 1946, he sold it and the adjacent Namazie Mansions to Shaw Organisation, which converted the theatre into a 1,688-seat cinema. Namazie Mansions was eventually renamed Capitol Building in 1992.

It used to be connected to the theatre via a concrete bridge on the second level, but it was demolished in the new construction, keeping the two buildings separate.

Modifications were made over the years, thanks to the change of owners. For example, the two plaster Pegasus sculptures flanking the stage in the theatre were coated with thick layers of paint, obscuring the artistic details on the maidens and winged horses.

Stripping away the layers, the team uncovered the delicate threads of the maidens' hair and beautiful sculptural details on the horses.

As for the interior, to get Capitol Theatre to be as close to what it looked like in its heyday, Studio Lapis wrote to The Sherwin-Williams Company, an old American brand that supplied the original paints, to verify paint colours.

However, it did not reply and Studio Lapis turned to paint samples collected and studied buildings from the same era to decipher the interior's colours.

But the theatre's current owners decided against using the original paint combination of maroon, green and cream with reddish-gold accents. Instead, they opted for cool grey, beige and off-white, coupled with gold-leaf foil embellishments for wall borders, for a contemporary and luxe feel.

The modernising touches are in line with the Government's vision for the building.

Ms Tan Huey Jiun, 39, director of conservation planning at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says despite Capitol Theatre's storied history and people's memories of the building, there was a need to modernise the space.

"Capitol Theatre is one of those special buildings in Singapore. It was a highlight for many people, so we wanted to keep it going. But it needed to have new uses for it to be sustainable as well."

The government agency oversaw the tender process and picked the best design for the development in 2010. And despite its long absence, it is clear that Capitol Theatre has a special place in the Singaporean heart and many are looking forward to seeing its rebooted version.

Mr Jimmy Teng, 41, remembers his parents taking him to the cinema to catch movies such as The Last Emperor (1987), a film about the life of Puyi, the last Chinese ruler.

Mr Teng, who works in a bank, says: "It was a place that was more popular with my parents during their younger years. For me, it's one of those buildings that's always there, but didn't make an impression because it was closed.

"Now that it's open again and looks brand new, it's a place I can take my family to. It's refreshing to see what they have done with the old building."

Capitol Theatre milestones

1929: The land the Capitol Theatre sits on was bought by Persian businessman Mohammed Ali Namazie. He built the theatre in 1929, one of the first fully air-conditioned cinemas in Singapore, and the four-storey Namazie Mansions next door in 1933.

1930: The first movie screened here was Rio Rita, a 1929 musical comedy. Live shows were also hosted here.

1942 to 1944: During World War II, the Japanese used it as a food depot and screened Japanese films. The building was returned to Mr Namazie after the war.

1946: Movie giant Shaw Organisation bought the building for $3 million and built it as its flagship cinema with 1,686 seats. The Namazie Mansions was later renamed the Shaw Building.

1950s: Architect Ng Keng Siang spearheaded the renovations. The Capitol Restaurant opened and people flocked to the Magnolia Snack Bar in Capitol Building - it was known as the Shaw Building before - for its milkshakes and set lunches.

1960s: The theatre also hosted variety shows, which featured stars such as Sakura Teng and Rita Chao.

1970s: Shaw Organisation submitted plans to redevelop Capitol Theatre and Capitol Building to have more screens and apartments, but did not get government approval.

1984: Capitol Cinema was earmarked for redevelopment and, three years later, the authorities acquired the two buildings but continued to lease the cinema to Shaw. The cinema had a three-year $700,000 spruce-up before it was unveiled in 1992.

1998: The last movie shown here was Soldier, starring Kurt Russell and Jason Scott Lee.

2000: The Singapore Tourism Board toyed with various ideas on how to use the space, including turning it into an arts venue. But in 2006, it decided not to proceed and returned it to the Singapore Land Authority. In 2007, it was declared a conservation area.

2010: The Urban Redevelopment Authority awarded the Capitol site - it included the theatre, Capitol Building, Stamford House and Capitol Centre - to Capitol Investment Holdings via a two-envelope tender.

This article was first published on May 16, 2015.
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