Just as Singapore has the New Majestic Hotel, Penang now has Macalister Mansion, a quirky eight-room hotel housed in a 100-year-old heritage mansion in UNESCO-listed Georgetown. Both hotels infuse new life and relevance into restored buildings, present art as installations, and hold the distinction of being the first in their respective countries to be made a member of the ultra-hip Design Hotels network.
Like the New Majestic, Macalister Mansion's transformation was helmed by Singapore-based Ministry of Design, led by director-founder Colin Seah. Both properties meld edginess with whimsy, but whereas walking through a door at the New Majestic can have the excitement of opening a box of chocolates (as in you never know what you're going to see), the design narrative at Macalister is tighter, more holistic — even the paper clips were designed from scratch — and a touch more grown up and sophisticated.
Owned by prominent Penangites Dato' Sean and Datin Karen H'ng — original investors behind popular haunts 32 The Mansion, Beach Blanket Babylon, Suffolk House and Bagan — Macalister is the couple's first foray into hospitality. The pair had been scouting around town to relocate one of their restaurants, when in a case of classic serendipity, they chanced upon what was formerly the Choong Lye Hock mansion on Macalister Road.
“It was in a very bad condition. Nothing much was left, even the windows and doors had to be dug out of storage,” says Dato' H'ng, who saw potential in turning the property into a hotel so intimate that it is now the second smallest hotel (by room count) in the 250-strong Design Hotels collection. “People thought I was crazy to do this project. I'm always asked why don't I add a few more rooms in the back or build a condominium at the side to make it more commercial. But that's not my intention. I want to preserve the building and creatively showcase what Penang can offer.”
“It seemed like the spirit of the place suggested itself to us,” echoes Seah, who designed Macalister Mansion's eight guest rooms, five food and beverage entities, and even its collaterals (such as logos, menus, even bottled water) around the idea of an old colonial home. Comparing Macalister's sophistication to his President's Design Award-winning New Majestic, he says: “In a way, with Macalister Mansion, I'm designing what is right for me now. It just so happens to also overlap with [H'ng's] design vision.” The avant garde New Majestic hotel was realised when he was “much younger” he adds. “Now, I'm approaching a different stage in my life”.
At Macalister, guests pull up at the entrance greeted by an oversized fractal bust of Norman Macalister (the island's early Lieutenant Governor for whom the hotel is named) before stepping under a turquoise scalloped canopy and through the mansion's original, highly ornate, double-leaf doorway.
Off to the side, the hotel's formal Dining Room offers French cuisine in a converted courtyard with pastel coloured chairs and fairy tale creatures — “It's the kind of place that makes you sit a little more upright, but also puts a smile on your face,” is how Seah describes it — while the casual Living Room, featuring filigree windows, hanging potted plants and mix-and-match seating, serves Penang dishes with a twist.
The same playfulness extends outside where a white cannon and a series of cannonballs are displayed beside the mansion's sunken “swim-up” bar — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the time Norman Macalister shot gold coins into the forest in a bid to incentivise islanders to clear costal land.
Offering a nice counterpoint to the whimsy are the distinctively masculine Bagan Bar and The Den. The latter with its striking patterned floors is a little hideaway with a wide selection of cigars and single malts, while Bagan Bar — the reincarnation of the H'ngs' original Bagan — is styled like an old library and showcases some of the more historic architectural details of the building.
Whereas the F&B entities can stop you in your tracks, upstairs, the eight generously sized suites strive for tranquillity. All are bathed in light, decked with timber flooring and finished in a palette of white and grey. Each also features commissioned artwork and celebrates its own unique architectural features.
“It was not space-making but experience-making that we grappled with from the beginning,” says Seah. “Although we preserved the exterior, we've done extensive work to restore the whole house, so that inside it is modern, homely and comfortable,” adds H'ng, whose involvement in Macalister Mansion's renewal can be seen in every room, from the selection of artwork to the perfect shade of grey for the hotel's in-room directories.
“An eight-room hotel wouldn't seem like it makes good business sense, but this was to fulfil my passion, nothing more than that,” he muses. “It isn't a hotel. It's a lifestyle destination.”