Earlier this year, a group of firemen and their families were asked to vacate their homes in the historical Customs House, located along the Chao Phraya. Could it be a prelude to the rebirth of one of Bangkok’s most emblematic historical structures?
There’s a crumbling building along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River that contrasts sharply with its neighbours (one of which is the immaculate residence of the French Ambassador to Thailand). Most visitors taking the boat along the river wonder about the state of decay of this mysterious grand structure which looks to be falling apart. Amazingly, however, it is one of the most beautiful and important buildings in the history of Siam and its capital.
The building in question is the Old Customs House, which was built by Austrian-Italian architect Joachim Grassi back to 1888 in a grand neo-classical style, the inspiration coming from the beautiful Palladian Villas that can be seen in Northern Italy’s countryside.
The Customs House was considered, for a long time, as the symbolic gateway into Siam. When King Rama V came back from his trip to Europe in 1897, his boat docked in front of the Customs House. Once again, in 1907, the Customs House was decked in the colours of the monarchy to welcome King Rama V on his return after a second trip to Europe.
But as time passed, the customs sector moved to a new area of the city (in the 1950s) and a brigade of firemen moved in to the Old Customs House instead. The building subsequently fell into a state of dilapidation, with its decrepit walls and collapsing roof making it seem more haunted than inhabited.
They have been plans for at least twenty years to restore the property—which is regulated under the Treasury Department and is rented to the Marine Police Department and Bang Rak District Fire Brigade. In 1996, the Tourism Authority of Thailand presented a plan to turn the facility into a Thai Cultural Centre. Then in 2005, the Treasure Department signed a leasing agreement providing a 30-year concession to real estate consortium Natural Park (now renamed U City) for the development of a 5-star boutique hotel. At that time Aman Resort Hotel Group was picked up as Natural Park’s hotel partner.
On U City’s website, the proposed Aman Resort Hotel Bangkok is described as a “luxurious 5-star hotel project which consists of 35 luxurious rooms occupying a total area of 12,300 square meters. The design has been made under the Heritage Development concept focusing on the harmony between the ancient custom house (Rong Pasee Roi Chak Sam) with its history dated back to more than 100 years and the new building which have carefully been designed to enhance the magnificence of the ancient site”.
However, in its 2014 annual report Natural Park mentioned that the project was “on hold awaiting site handover”. Time passed, and nothing happened except the further deterioration of the building. Meanwhile families from the Fire Brigade continued to live in the premises.
In an odd turn of fate the building became a favourite background for fashion shoots, and for students on their graduation day. It also stimulates the creativity of architecture students to design projects around the historical building. Two years ago the Bangkok School of Architecture created some plans to revive the Old Customs House and turn it into a community centre for arts and education. Their interesting work—which blends history with contemporary architecture—could prefigure what a future renovated Customs House could look like. See the plans online at:
In recent years the government suddenly seems again to be interested to work out a solution to save the place. In October, the Treasury Department gave a deadline to U City to start the project or the company would be kicked out from the concession. Since late January, they are no firemen and families anymore located within the Custom’s House premises, and all signs of private property have been removed. Students and visitors can walk around the crumbling buildings, which gives an eerie feeling of a structure vacated in a state of emergency. Broken bottles, clothes, newspapers, and old mattresses are probably the last testimony of the firemen brigades and their families. And now, perhaps, a new chapter will open for one of Bangkok’s most beautiful historical structures.