Government House designated a historic site

June 22TF-5Government House, the Italianate mansion built in 1925 that serves as the office of Thailand’s Prime Minister, and hosted a dazzling array of world leaders including kings, popes and several U.S. Presidents, was designated a historic site by the Fine Arts Department last week.

Government House is regarded as a national treasure both because of its exquisite architecture and the historical events that have taken place within its confines. Although it functions as the equivalent of the White House in the United States, unlike the White House it was not originally built to be an office for the country’s political leader, and Prime Ministers do not live there.

Government House was originally named Villa Norasingh and was built on the order of King Vajiravudh, or Rama VI, to be the family home of Ram Rakop, a general who was awarded the aristocratic title of Chao Phraya. Rarely bestowed, Chao Phraya was the second-highest rank a commoner could attain and was usually given to someone who did extraordinary work directly for the King.

Rama VI commissioned Italian architect Annibale Rigotti, who also helped design the Ananta Samakhorn Throne Hall and the Siam Commercial Bank building, both of which are also regarded as national treasures.

According to travel writer and historian Eric Lim, the villa’s “majestic palace-like structure is a harmonious blend of Venetian Gothic architecture and Thai design on grounds spread over 11 acres. A golden dome housing a statue of Brahma sits atop the roof. The pillars in the façade of the main building bear a close resemblance to the gilded columns of Palazzo Ca’d’Oro (Palace of Gold) built in Venice in the early 15th century by the Grand Canal.”

In 1941, the government purchased Villa Norasingh from the general’s heirs, and made it the office of the Prime Minister. Some histories contend that the purchase was to prevent the Japanese from acquiring the building for use as its embassy.

Another Italian, Corrado Feroci, a sculptor and artist renowned for his monuments in Bangkok, including the Democracy Monument, was commissioned to complete the decorations and renovations from 1942 to 1946. Feroci was given the Thai name Silpa Bhirasri and helped found Silpakorn University, the Kingdom’s most prestigious art school.

Queen Elizabeth visited Government House in 1972, and Pope John Paul was a guest in 1984. U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have visited Government House, as did Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California.

Government House has also hosted APEC events and the first meeting of Asian and European leaders, or ASEM in 1996.

But not all visitors are high-level. Kids from all corners of the country roam the grounds every year on Children’s Day.

Groups of citizens with grievances and political protesters have also converged on Government House many times during its history; camping outside its gates and demanding the Prime Minister of the day address their problems. In 2008, one group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, overran and occupied Government House for several weeks, forcing the Prime Minister to work elsewhere. Their adversaries, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, surrounded Government House in 2009.

While the governments of those years may have suffered some political bruises, Government House survived essentially unscathed, and remains a historic treasure and a symbol of political power to the Thai people.

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