A Spice Warehouse, Illegal Distillery and 80s Rave Disco Reincarnates as a Boutique Hotel

01.02.19 | By
A Spice Warehouse, Illegal Distillery and 80s Rave Disco Reincarnates as a Boutique Hotel

On the South bank of the Singapore River, across the bridge from some of Robertson Quay’s most popular haunts, such as Toby’s Estate and Kith Cafe, sits a former 19th-century spice warehouse turned boutique hotel. There’s an immediate uniqueness to it, and if you’ve spent some time in Singapore you’d recognize how it’s different. This is a short, two-story building with signature triple-pitched roofs—a curious feature, given there aren’t many buildings like that left in Singapore, a land-scarce country that’s been forced to build as high as possible. The Warehouse Hotel, which turns 2 years old this January, has become somewhat of a secret gem in an area that is usually abuzz with nightlife, swanky cafes and clubs.

The property is located right by the Singapore River, with nightclubs and hipster cafes on the opposite bank.

“People always like the story behind the building,” says Chris Lee, founder of Asylum, when presenting The Warehouse Hotel at the Taiwan Golden Pin Design Awards. (Check out our coverage of the awards here.)

Lee knew he had a leg up when his team got the chance to work on a building with multiple former lives. “This warehouse is 120 years old. It’s twice the age of Singapore!,” Lee exclaimed.

In 1895, when the British occupied Singapore, the property lived and breathed the spice trade as a “godown” to house goods peddled by merchants from Singapore to Malaysia along the Straits of Malacca. Now, depending on the age of the locals you ask, Singaporeans may know the spot as: an opium den, an illegal distillery and secret society holding area, a rave discotheque—in fact, Singapore’s most renowned disco of the 80s—or an empty warehouse, vacant for almost two decades.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been to this disco…tells you how old I am!” Lee says with a laugh.

To have a building experience so many reincarnations is rare in Singapore, a youthful, modern nation which just celebrated its 53rd year of independence last August. Search for the architectural icons of Singapore and you’ll likely come across the young, hip crowning glories you see in documentaries and movies, such as the Singapore Flyer, the Gardens by the Bay, or the ubiquitous three-pillared modern legend with infinity pool overflowing: the gigantic Marina Bay Sands.

“In Singapore, everything is modern, everything is boring. Things get torn down after 1 or 2 years,” says Lee. It’s clear that The Warehouse Hotel was not going to go along with this trend—it would stand out in a more subtle, classy way. The architectural rehabilitation of this hotel, led by Singaporean design firms Asylum and Zarch Collaboratives, retained many of its original industrial features, from exposed brick masonry wall and roof trusses to the tall jalousie windows.

There’s the building, and then there’s the story. Adjacent to the reception desk is an “Objects of Vice” installation featuring items that the original dialos (warehouse bosses) would have used, such as lighters, ashtrays and flasks. This continues into the rooms: a Southeast Asian style “Minibar of Vice” offers Lust—naughty treats and objects; Gluttony—salted egg yolk potato chips; and Vanity–concoctions of local beauty elixirs.

Brewing locally roasted coffee in the River View room. Photo by Keshia Badalge.

Peanut congee. Photo by Keshia Badalge.

With only 37 rooms, it even feels like you’re a local taking up private residence by the Quay. It’s a modest establishment, and that’s why “it has to be buzzing in the common space if it is so small in building area,” says Lee. The spacious first floor holds all the communal spaces, from a library to a traditional restaurant with signature Singapore dishes—think Ba Kut Teh (peppered pork bone soup) and peanut congee for the breakfast buffet, or charcoal-grilled satay for dinner.

Lobby bar in the first floor.

BARBARELLA: a cocktail of hibiscus gin, elderflower, rhubarb, egg white, earl grey. Photo by Cullen Fairchild.

The lobby bar’s house-made local infusions and essences again reiterate the building’s three distinct lives. The menu is whimsical and still does a good job in showcasing local flavors such as kaya, barley, orgeat and pandan bitters. It is a standout in Singapore, and locals (full disclosure: I am one) would be jealous if they knew that tourists are getting all the fun with such traditional delights! “The cocktails are a taste of the three distinct eras of the warehouse’s past, from the frenetic height of the spice trade and the darker underbelly of godown culture to the giddy heyday of disco,” the hotel states.

It’s not all naughty business. The hotel also plays very nice: all water is bottled in the warehouse itself, room amenities are pumped not bottled, and there’s an incredible amount of collaboration with local designers, from locally-made blankets with the Warehouse hotel symbolically sewn all over, to Singaporean-baked pineapple tarts.

“It’s easier in Singapore to build new again instead of rebuild an old space,” says Lee. It’s really quite something to behold in a city that’s one of the most rapidly modernizing countries in the word, and that looks more and more Western through the years. Here, the menus still have Mandarin characters, tote bags are printed with old school Mandarin slogans, and all the food and drinks are unmistakably Asian. Lee loves it. “It’s the confidence to say, ‘that is cool’ about Chinese culture, instead of just looking at Western things.”

What: The Warehouse Hotel
Where:320 Havelock Road | Robertson Quay | Singapore 169628
How much? Starting from $223
Highlights: A former spice store house, secret society clubhouse, rave discotheque, turned into boutique hotel along the Singapore river.
Design draw: Singaporean designers retained original trusses as well a triple pitched roof. Inside, local artisans created blankets, soaps and even a cabinet of “vices” specifically for this establishment.
Book it: Visit The Warehouse Hotel

Photos by The Warehouse Hotel, Lo & Behold Group, and the author.

Keshia grew up in Singapore and moved to the U.S. to attend Dartmouth College. When she was living abroad after graduation, a chance enrollment at the Architectural Association Visiting School led to her becoming enamored with door schedules and architectural écriture. She's particularly interested in design for aging, rural architecture, and Asian design heritage.