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Date With The Wrecking Ball: Cercle des Officiers

Last week it was announced that yet another old French civic building, featured earlier this year in Saigoneer as an “Old Saigon Building of the Week,” will soon be demolished.

The Cercle des officiers in the late 1870s – note the Cathedral under construction in the background.

The colonial pile at 45-47 Lê Duẩn, right opposite the Diamond Plaza, is one of the oldest surviving French buildings in the city. It was built in 1876 at the command of Rear Admiral-Governor Victor Guy Duperré (30 September 1874 - 30 January 1876) as the Cercle des Officiers or Officers’ Mess, to provide social and recreational facilities for high-ranking members of the French armed forces. The no-nonsense design by the Cochinchina Department of Public Works, typical of the period, features a surrounding verandah and high ceilings to enhance ventilation.

The Cercle des officiers in the early 1900s.

Visiting Saigon in 1882, retired Chief Naval Pharmacist Arthur Delteil described the Cercle des Officiers as “a large two-storey building which owes its existence to the munificence of a Governor, who had it built in order to create a meeting place for officers of all the armed forces.”

The Cercle des officiers in the 1920s.

Another view of the Cercle des officiers in the 1920s.

He continued: “The ground floor is devoted to the marine infantry officers’ mess. On the upper floor there is a library, a reading room, a billiard room and a bar. The subscription is one piastre per month.”

The Cercle des officiers in 1929.

Between 1955 and 1975, the old Cercle des Officiers building was repurposed to house the South Vietnamese Ministry of Justice (Bộ Tư pháp).

Since Reunification it has served as the headquarters of the District 1 People’s Committee (Ủy ban Nhân dân Quận 1). However, on 17 November 2014 it was reported by VNExpress that following an estimated windfall profit of over 6,000 billion đồng in the current year, the District 1 People's Committee plans to proceed with the construction of a new administrative centre at 45-47 Lê Duẩn.

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Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour book Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Heritage Tours of Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

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