This was an article I wrote on 22nd August 2006 (Madras Day) when five heritage buildings were threatened. Of these, St Ebba’s has miraculously survived and is now looking beautiful with a fresh coat of paint. The others have gone.

 MM here stands for Madras Musings.

All fall down

What a birthday for a city! With just a week to go for the celebrations to begin, Madras that is Chennai has been given three, no make that four gifts and the number may keep increasing. All these are going to be spanking new buildings, full of concrete and glass if commercial or swank apartment blocks with swimming pools if residential. Some promise both in the same location. What more could the city want?

Unfortunately, they are all coming up on what would have been considered heritage sites had we only had a law to that effect. As for whatever stood there earlier, what of them? We at Madras Musings are mourning their passing even if very few others are concerned or bothered.

What follows is an obituary for those vanished/vanishing/ to be demolished structures that once defined the city.

  1. Kardyl or the Bharat Insurance Building – In its heyday, shortly after it was completed in 1897, it was described as “a palatial structure… one of the sights of the city, making a far greater show than any other commercial buildings on Mount Road”. It was designed by JH Stephen of the Madras PWD for WE Smith, leading wholesale druggists, opticians, dealers in surgical instruments and also strangely enough in aerated waters for which there was a factory just behind the building. The main structure, described by the editor of this paper in a column as a symbol of “the losing battle for the city’s heritage” had a magnificent 60 by 40 ft showroom, besides rooms for doctors and dentists. A later treatise on the architecture of the city described it as reflecting a “multitude of styles”. WE Smith became a part of Spencers in 1925 and the building was bought in 1934 by Bharat Insurance. In time the triangular garden in the front of the building was built over by the Bharat Insurance Building which completely hid one side of the older structure from view. The building was let out to various tenants and in 1957, with the nationalization of insurance, LIC became the owner.

Poor maintenance was the building’s bane and gradually it was allowed to go to seed. There were difficulties with tenants even as the LIC attempted to get them evicted. The PWD gave a report in the 1990s that the building was under severe structural stress and needed repair immediately. LIC however chose to remain silent and let the building go from bad to worse, till recently when having succeeded in evicting most of the tenants, private tenders were finalized for the demolition. The actual work of demolition began early in the second week of August when part of the roof, the flattened peak and several sunshades were brought down.The demolition was however challenged in court by the Indian National Trust for Architectural and Cultural Heritage on August 10th and the High Court of Madras granted an interim injunction staying the demolition till further hearing.

What does the city stand to lose if the building is allowed to be demolished? First, the structure is a landmark piece of architecture, symbolic of the city’s unique Indo Saracenic style. Second, its interior going by what is described in “Madras, the Architectural Heritage” by Kalpana and Frank Schiffer is rich with stained glass panels, decorated false ceilings, wooden staircases and ornamental cast iron work. In short it is a valuable piece of the city’s heritage which could have any number of alternative uses if only it was preserved. The LIC, which has taken pride in restoration of its heritage buildings elsewhere in country has however shown a complete lack of interest in this treasure of Chennai.

  1. Gandhi Illam – This was a stately though medium sized structure that stood inside Government Estate just before Rajaji Hall. It was named Gandhi Illam when in 1969, it was converted into a museum devoted to the Mahatma’s life and was inaugurated on 2nd October that year by M Karunanidhi the present Chief Minister. Over the years, the building suffered neglect and was declared to be a dilapidated structure a few years ago when the exhibits were shifted. This year, a mysterious fire broke out (as it often does in heritage buildings in Chennai, does it not) and the demolition of the structure was ordered at once. When a Madras Musings representative visited the site, the work of bringing the building down was already half way through. MM wonders as to what is to come up in its place? A modern day PWD monstrosity? Is this the way we pay homage to a building named after the father of the Nation?
  2. The Oceanic – In its heyday it was the only competition to the Connemara and its main block was a classic example of the Art Deco style. Built by the MS Ramaswami Chettiar family in the 1950s it was a top notch hotel that even hosted visiting cricket teams, held UN conferences and played host to several film stars. It was also a choice venue for film shooting especially of the “curry Western” variety. In later years it lost its sheen and became a rather shady hang out. The Oceanic, ridden by litigation, was closed for the past two decades, but there was hope a couple of years ago that the Taj Group would take it over and reopen it after refurbishment and expansion. The negotiations were finalised and the Taj had even agreed to retain the Oceanic’s art deco style main block, but with a change in the Taj management, the deal was not concluded. Since then, highrise began eating into the Oceanic’s property on its fringes, but it was still a property with potential for an enterprising hotelier. There was talk of a fast growing city based budget chain of hotels taking the place on lease but that was not to happen. Last month the owner decided to cash in on the IT boom and convert the place into an IT park. The hotel was razed to the ground and when MM’s reporter visited the place only the ornamental arch at the entrance was left.
  3. The Kapali Theatre – It was only a few weeks ago when the Man from Madras Musings reported that on RK Mutt Road, the only open space left was the property belonging to the Kapali Theatre, the first proper theatre to come up in Mylapore. It was inaugurated in 1939 by MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, then the reigning super star. It façade was a classic art deco structure, a style that most theatres adopted in the city. It is learnt that the Kapali, which had been closed owing to litigation has now been taken over by a builder who is looking at developing it into a commercial and residential complex. Demolition of the building has already begun. What amazes Madras Musings is the ease with which permission is granted to build large commercial and residential complexes on a road that is already buckling under the load of vehicles. The new development only promises to increase congestion in the area.
  4. St Ebbas School – Benjamin Sullivan was in his time the “originator” of the Madras Post Office, Attorney General in the 1780s and later a Judge. His house and the property on which it stood, namely Sullivan’s Gardens was acquired in 1840 for Rs 20,000 by the Madras Diocesan Committee of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts and converted into a kind of seminary and “quasi college”. The St Ebba’s school which began in 1886 moved into this property which today stands on Dr Radhakrishnan Road.

The school which is doing noble service in providing education for girls from less privileged families in Mylapore, is finding the going tough living in a heritage building with several maintenance issues for which funds are always in short supply. MM learns that a fund for a new building has been started with a view to pulling down the old structure and building afresh in its place. This report is based on information with MM as the principal of the school was not available for comment.

While MM appreciates the need for renovation, it would urge the school to look at inviting experts in heritage restoration such as INTACH to step in and advise on what best can be done for the building and changing its interiors to keep the school abreast with modernity even while the façade of the building is kept intact. The school will not only be setting a noble example, it would also be retaining an airy and well ventilated structure, something which is a scarcity in most modern say school buildings.

That completes the latest round in the tale of the destruction of the city’s heritage. All this would never have come to pass had we a Heritage Act in place. It was only a few weeks ago when a former Mayor and present day Minister had stated that heritage structures must not be allowed to rot. MM was heartened by such a statement and still hopes for the best that an act will soon be passed. Needless to add, Madras Musings will continue to battle for it despite all such setbacks.