Work is beginning to happen at the Victoria Public Hall, the stately edifice that the Government has promised to restore to its old glory. But the great secrecy and stealth with which the entire restoration has been planned is causing anxiety to those with the welfare of the building in mind.
The renovation has been planned at a cost of Rs 9.75 Crores and the Government has already ordered the eviction of shops fronting the building. The South Indian Athletic Association which was occupying a part of the hall has also moved out. Earlier, the Trust that administered the hall had given returned the premises to the Corporation on the assurance that the building will be restored faithfully and put to good use. The Corporation also identified a firm of architects from Hyderabad who have had extensive experience in renovating heritage structures to scope the work. This was completed in December 2008 and the tendering process was to be completed by the Corporation for identifying contractors by June 2009. The work it was announced would begin in September.
What has happened subsequently is shrouded in secrecy. The plans for restoration have not been made public. The work has already begun on the compound wall which the Corporation claims will be a see-through one and will cost Rs 10.00 Lakh. Landscaping work will follow.
What is not clear is what the Corporation plans to do with the building itself by way of restoration and also by way of use later. The architects who surveyed the work had according to reliable sources pointed out several aspects of the immediate environment of the hall which needed attention. This included neighbouring buildings which have been built on the compound wall of the hall and which also drain their toilets into the hall’s garden. This matter will have to be addressed before any restoration as such defects need to be corrected before any further work is taken up. According to those in the know, the southern side of the building needs immediate attention as water from drains is collecting here due to improper connections to the main drain and this is causing damp to rise in the walls. This will ultimately affect the stability of the structure any restoration that does not address these issues will prove useless in the long run.
Within the building, three out of four staircases leading to the first floor are completely unusable and the stair that leads to the tower has completely collapsed making that part of the building inaccessible. The toilets in the building are completely useless and makeshift toilets and overhead tanks constructed by previous occupants are adding to the dampness and seepage.
In all such cases, the site restoration and development, roof restoration and exterior work are to be taken up before such superficial elements as landscaping and compound walls are worked upon. The selection of contractors for the work would also have to be based on a scientific evaluation and materials that need to be used will also have to be tested on site before they are used extensively. The overall area in which the building is located will have to be studied before a conclusion is arrived at on what purpose the building will be used for after restoration. The Corporation has unfortunately not paid attention to any of these aspects and even if it has, it has not made the findings of its study public. So will this effort at restoration be a hotpotch affair in the best Government tradition?
Chennai already has the examples of two splendid restorations – the Senate House and the Connemara Public Library, both of which were declared out-of-bounds after the restoration work was completed. This is hardly the way heritage buildings can survive. Will Victoria Public Hall follow suit or will it fare better?