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Old Town Hall and the Emmanuel Baptist Church



This view, looking east from Sule Pagoda, takes in three interesting buildings: Ripon Hall, used as Rangoon’s town hall and later replaced by the current city hall, the Rowe and Co. Department Store, which is now Aya Bank, and the Emmanuel Baptist Church, which retains its function today, but in a new structure. Here we’ll talk about city hall, the design of which marks a successful resistance to British architectural dominance, and the Baptist church. Rowe and Co. will have a post of its own in future.

Ripon Hall was purchased by the local British government for use as offices in 1886, for the princely sum of £8,200; the equivalent of around 1.35 million US dollars today. There’s scant mention of the hall prior to this, though it may have been a formal dance hall, and indeed did host a ball for the visit of the Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin, in the same year it was purchased. It was likely named for the previous viceroy, Lord Ripon.

Ripon Hall, with the portico intact, and Sule Pagoda

Unfortunately by 1911 the roof was falling in, and the portico in front of the building had to be removed before it collapsed. The following year the annual report of the municipal government reported that “the Town Hall was found to be over-run with plague-infected rats and was consequently condemned by the Health Officer”.

A competition was launched to design a new building, with a prize of £300 to the winning design for “a building with some pretensions to architectural beauty”. Construction of the winning design was delayed by the first World War, after which Burmese anti-imperialism had solidified, and demanded that city hall follow a Burmese architectural design.

This culminated in a debate at the Burma Legislative Council. U Ba Pe, a leading voice in the nationalist movement, called for the design to incorporate elements based on the pagodas and shrines of Bagan. The Europeans argued that it was inappropriate for civic buildings to use religious design elements due to the separation of state and religion. However, U Ba Pe smartly responded that there wasn’t a civic style of architecture in the world that wasn’t in some way descended from religious architectural design. With this, he won the debate.

As a result, while the underlying building remains the neo-classical style similar to other colonial era buildings, city hall incorporates traditional iconography like the nagas and peacocks, and makes use of traditional tiered roofs, pyatthat. Though the changes were fairly minimal, the overall effect is a building that embodies the politics of its era; the weakening of colonial power, and the increased organisation and impact of Burmese anti-imperialist efforts.

City hall now, with the naga just visible through the new palms

The original Emmanuel Baptist Church was built in 1885, but was destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt in 1952 in the current form, with the second spire added. Now a wholly domestic operation, until 1965 the church pastor was sent from an American Baptist organization.

Unexpectedly, the history of American Baptism in its current form is directly tied to Myanmar. In 1812 a minister and his wife, Adoniram and Ann Judson, were sent to India as missionaries by a different Christian order, but en route they decided that he believed in the tenets of Baptism (basically that people have to choose to be baptized when old enough to meaningfully understand it, not as infants), and quit their original assignment. The English refused them entry to India, wary of the influx of missionaries, but rather than return home, the Judsons carried on to Burma. There they set about spreading the Baptist word. We’ll return to their (mis)adventures in a later post.

Spoiler alert

Back in the US, the need to support the Judsons in their mission directly led to the founding of an Baptist organisation that today is known as American Baptist Churches USA, and boasts 1.2m adherents and 5,120 churches in the US. The vast majority of which most likely have no idea that the original of their particular denomination is inexorably linked to Myanmar.

There appears to be an additional interesting story buried in the history of the church. A passage about its history in the 1910 book Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma, asserts that the church’s affiliation with the US-based American Baptist Missionary Union organisation continued until 1894, when “an untoward series of events transpired, resulting in the severance of this connection, and since then the Church has been self-supporting”. I’d love to know the details of these untoward events that the author can’t bring himself to describe.

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  1. Ajar new Pete Ajar new Pete

    Fantastic to see these old photos, & how things line up with today’s city scene.

  2. Ismail Dadabhoy Ismail Dadabhoy

    Brilliant photo history of old and new Rangoon. The accompanying explanation brings it alive. So very well done.
    Hugely enjoyed Yangon Time Machine.
    Brings back old and wonderful memories.
    Thank you very much.

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