It is now two months since the Heritage Conservation Committee was formed by the State Government. Since then, the committee has recommended that two buildings, namely Bharat Insurance (Kardyll) Building and Gokhale Hall ought not to be demolished. It has also sent out letters to the owners of the 467 buildings/places of historical importance/aesthetic value/popular places as listed in 2008 by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee and has asked them to desist from making any modifications/alterations/repairs/demolition. But since then, not much has happened by way of progress. And in the meanwhile, buildings, even those listed in the Padmanabhan report, are continuing to vanish.

A partial survey recently undertaken by Madras Musings shows that even before the list was made public this year in conjunction with the appointment of the Heritage Committee, some of the buildings had already gone. These most notably included all the heritage structures inside the Government Estate which were demolished to make way for the new State Assembly and Secretariat- Government House, Gandhi Illam (formerly the Governor’s Guest House), the gates of Government Estate and the Cooum House. So that brings down the tally of listed heritage buildings from 467 to 463. It is noteworthy to point out here that all the above demolished structures were listed as grade 1 buildings in the Padmanabhan Committee report which meant that they were “buildings, precincts or open spaces of national or historic importance and are characterised by their excellence in architectural style, design, technology and material usage/aesthetics and they may be associated with a great historic event, personality, movement or institution. They are and have been prime landmarks of the city.”

If this is the fate of grade 1 buildings in the possession of the Government, the story of buildings owned by other institutions is not much better. Among those privately held, the Roxy Theatre in Purasawalkam (graded as a 2a building – a landmark of the city that forms an important part of the city’s heritage and contributes to the image and identity of the city) has been completely demolished and a shopping complex stands in its place. The Binny’s Recreation Club on Errabalu Chetty Street (grade 2b-buildings/precincts/open spaces that are important in maintaining the character of the locality in which they are cited) has more or less collapsed due to poor maintenance and its entrance is now blocked by a family of squatters.
Galvanised iron sheets have come up around the Harbour Police Station (2a) and it is understood that it will soon be demolished.

The Church has contributed its share too. We have already published in Madras Musings about the repairs going on in Anderson Church (grade 1). In this issue, we carry an independent report of the demolition of the old structures at St Roque’s Church (2a). Another church that has been completely pulled down is CSI St Lukes (2a) in Mandaveli. A wedding hall stands in its place now. The Christian Literature Society Building (2a) on Evening Bazaar Road has also been demolished. Another set of buildings listed in the report comprises the residential quarters of the Government Women and Children’s Hospital on Pantheon Road. Some of the blocks have been demolished and a multi-storey building is coming up there. This was given grade 1 status in the report. Similarly, a whole block of the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital (grade 1) in Triplicane has been torn down and pile foundations are being laid for a multi-storey structure.

It is clear from all this that the listing and the subsequent intimation by letter has not had the desired effect. In fact it appears to have spurred owners to get on with demolition and development. The Committee will therefore need to change its strategy. It will need to begin personal interactions with the owners and advise them on what can be done and what will not be allowed. It will also need to begin to gauge the feelings of the owners and in cases where there is a desire to realise the commercial value locked up in the property, it must step in and ensure that those desirous of maintaining heritage properties come forward and take the place over, after paying market rates to the owners. All this is not easy, but this is the only way ahead. The Committee will also need to lobby hard with the Government for the passage of a Heritage Act. And it will also need to look beyond this list and see what other buildings/precincts are worth protection.

Lastly, a small committee cannot monitor the well-being of so many buildings. It will need to get voluntary help from residents in various localities to do this. These people can alert the committee as and when any heritage building in their vicinity sees a sudden spurt of activity. For this, the list of buildings protected by the Committee will need to be made public. Madras Musings will publish the list in instalments. This issue covers the buildings in Fort St George and North Chennai.