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Penang's first great house regains glory

GEORGE TOWN: Having been restored to its former glory after years of neglect, Penang's first "Great House", Suffolk House, is a heritage building worthy of public interest.

After a RM7 million restoration project completed in 2007, the Georgian-styled mansion today is managed by Badan Warisan Heritage Services Sdn Bhd, the corporate arm of Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM).

According to BWM deputy president Laurence Loh, Suffolk House is popular for its fine dining and has in recent years attracted attention among the corporate sector for events especially product launches.

"We have been trying to push and ‘sell' Suffolk House and, slowly, people are becoming aware of the place.

"For many, it is not iconic enough and owing to its secluded location, we do not get many walk-in customers for the tours or dining facilities.

"We have not been able to accelerate the tours but we are trying our level best, though our food and beverage outlet is very well patronised," he said.

A year after it was restored, Suffolk House won the Award of Distinction in the 2008 Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.

Conservation architect Loh, who is owner of Arkitek LLA Sdn Bhd, had overseen the restoration of Suffolk House that only started in earnest in 2000.

Various proposals were made for its use, including showcasing Suffolk House as a museum.

However, after the 2008 general election, the new state government decided to call for an open tender for the management of the site on a commercial basis, which was awarded to BWM in 2009.

Loh said the 10-year lease at RM10,000 per month enabled Suffolk House to be managed as an ongoing business.

"Our role is to develop and showcase good heritage management practices and to act as heritage site manager as opposed to property site manager.

"We aim to keep it in good shape, maintain it and ensure conservation principles are continued and that whatever cultural value the site possesses is not forsaken," he added.

Loh said the house is one of its kind in Malaysia, dressed exactly in the era it was built.

Efforts were made to conserve and restore the building to its most significant form as portrayed in several paintings dating between 1811 and 1818.

"The early form of the house, as can be discerned from the paintings, is Anglo-India. The critical decision was to return it to the 1812-1820 era and what was finally constructed was a close version of it," Loh added.

In an attempt to recreate the ambience of the early days of Penang, replica furniture of the original period is featured throughout the house.

The ground floor consists of the dining rooms, an interpretation room and a study while the upstairs features a ballroom, the lady's bedroom, a sitting room, a meeting room, open terrace area and wide verandahs with unobstructed views of the nearby river and the grounds.

The restaurant easily seats 80 people and events held there have included weddings for up to 300 guests, both indoors and outdoors in the sprawling gardens.

The food and beverage outlet is run on a profit-sharing basis with a caterer, who also runs the fine dining restaurant, 32 The Mansion, along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

The restaurant is popular for its English afternoon high tea, especially during the weekends.

Loh said although managing Suffolk House does pose some economic issues, if promoted well, they could be overcome with more events and tours.

There are at least four corporate and private events held every month, while the house is also being promoted as a destination for wedding photography sessions.

The self-guided tours are RM10 and guided tours cost RM15. Tour packages with dining are also offered to tour agents to promote them locally and abroad. Tour packages are also offered for certain age groups, including children and students.

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