The project to build a new 14-storey City Administration Centre behind the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee involves the destruction of several heritage buildings. The art deco office and apartment block at 213 Đồng Khởi was demolished in mid 2014 and it remains to be seen whether or not its neighbour, the old French government building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, will be next in line.
Many of us pass it every day and scarcely give it a second look. Yet the building which houses the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Information was once a focus of French colonial power second only to the Governor’s palace.
The first French government building on this site was the Direction de l’Intérieur (Department of the Interior), constructed by the Cochinchina authorities in the early 1860s. Although no photographs of the building have survived, it was depicted clearly in the remarkable 1881 engraving, Saïgon d’après nature.
According to L de Coincy’s book Quelques mots sur la Cochinchine en 1866 (A few words about the colony in 1866), the department was “responsible for the entire civil, judicial and financial administration of the colony” and its representatives throughout Cochinchina were inspectors of Indigenous Affairs.
In 1888, the functions of the Direction de l’Intérieur were subsumed by the Secrétariat général du gouvernement de la Cochinchine, and soon after this a larger building – the current one – was constructed at 59-61 rue de la Grandière. By the early 20th century, this was often known by the alternative names of Bureaux du gouvernment or Bureaux des Services civiles.
Following the Second World War, the French briefly set up a Ministère de l’Intérieur (Interior Ministry) in the compound for the short-lived State of Việt Nam.
However, after 1955 a new Bộ Nội vụ (Interior Ministry) was opened in the former Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté compound at 164 Tự Do and 59-61 Gia Long (as it then became known) was transformed into the South Vietnamese Ministry of the Economy (Bộ Kinh tế).
In 1958 the compound made a fleeting appearance in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s film version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
The 126-year-old compound currently serves as the headquarters of the Department of Information and Communications (Sở Thông tin và Truyền thông) and the Department of Trade and Industry (Sở Công thương).
In December 2014, the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee launched a competition to select a design for the new building “which will achieve the highest requirements, the optimal location in the most solemn part of the city, with architectural harmony between works to be preserved and embellished and those to be built new, in harmony with the architecture of the surrounding area.”
Postscript: In October 2015 it was reported that the People’s Committee had chosen the design for the new City Administration Centre by the Nikken Siekei company, which envisages preserving the old French government building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng after it has been physically moved in three sections so that it is in line with the central axis of the Town Hall. See TP.HCM sắp có khu trung tâm hành chính mới.
Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.
A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.
Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.