The High Court of Madras, designed by Henry Irwin

After Chisholm, architecture was never the same for the British Raj and among his successors, it was Henry Irwin who was to contribute the most to the Madras skyline. Irwin unlike Chisholm was well known when he came to Madras in the 1880s.

He was of Irish origin, born in 1841 in County Kerry. Not much detail is available on his education. In 1864 he joined the Public Works Department under the Admiralty in England and two years later moved to Ceylon where too he worked in the PWD. In 1868 he moved to India, once again in the PWD and in 1872 he became the Executive Engineer, Nagpur and Central Provinces. One of his earliest architectural commissions appears to have been the Christ Church at Panchmarhi, the hill-station for the Central Provinces. This was completed in the 1880s.

Irwin’s meteoric rise in architectural circles coincided with the arrival of Lord Dufferin as Viceroy of India in 1885. Irwin was then working on the Ripon Hospital in the summer capital of Simla and among the first ceremonial functions for the new Viceroy was the inauguration of this gothic-styled hospital, made almost entirely of wood. The Viceroy was evidently impressed. Irwin became Superintending Engineer, Simla Imperial Circle of the Central PWD.

Among Dufferin’s pet ideas was the construction of a viceregal palace in Simla and Irwin was entrusted with the task. Over the next three years the edifice rose, with the Viceroy visiting the site almost every day while he was in Simla and making changes much to the despair of everyone on the job. It was completed nevertheless in 1888 and received a mixed reaction. Even today, Irwin’s name can be seen engraved on the main portico of the building, an honour shared by the Viceroy’s name as well. During this time, Irwin was to design several other Simla buildings – the Town Hall, the Post and Telegraph office, the PWD offices and the Army headquarters. Of these, the Town Hall was not a success. Perhaps because his attention had been diverted to the Viceroy’s palace, Irwin overlooked the use of substandard materials in the Town Hall and within 20 years of its construction it had to be dismantled. But all that was in the future and when he left Simla in 1888, it was in a blaze of glory.

From the cool climes of Simla Irwin arrived in hot Madras, as Consulting Architect for the Madras Presidency, a post that Chisholm had just resigned, in a huff. It is not certain if the two met but there was to be a change in Irwin’s style. Evidently, he was a respecter of local traditions. In Simla his work was largely gothic but in Madras he embraced the Indo-Saracenic. And in that style he was to build at least eight massive edifices.

Among the first projects were the High Court and Law College premises. Begun in 1889, this was clearly inspired by the Gothic Law Courts of London but at the same time it paid handsome tribute to the Indo-Saracenic. Constructed largely by T Namberumal Chetty, the great building contractor of Madras, it remains an architectural delight even today. The High Court was completed in 1892 and inaugurated by the Governor.

Work began thereafter on a couple of landmark buildings in Egmore. These were at the Pantheon complex and comprised the Connemara Library and the Victoria Memorial Hall. Irwin designed both, once again the execution being that of Namberumal. The Connemara Library can barely be seen in its entirety today thanks largely to a colourless new block. But it is clearly inspired by the Viceregal Lodge, Simla while incorporating elements of the Indo-Saracenic. Its interior is a riot of stained glass and relief plaster. The Library was completed in 1896 and is still one of the four National Libraries of India. The old block was magnificently restored a couple of years ago but still remains out of bounds for visitors.

Next to the Library is the Victoria Memorial Hall, originally intended as home for the Victoria Technical Institute but from 1951 designated as the National Gallery. It has remained locked for several years now, ostensibly awaiting funds for restoration. This was completed in 1909 and designed by Irwin in the Mughal/Rajasthani style. Its exterior is of pink sandstone quarried from Tada in present-day Andhra. Its entrance is clearly inspired by the Bulund Durwaza, Fatehpur Sikri.

A section of the Bank of Madras Building, by Irwin

One of the oldest commercial banks in the country was the Bank of Madras which later became a part of the Imperial Bank of India, now the State Bank of India. In 1896 Irwin began work on the bank’s headquarters on First Line Beach. Constructed at a cost of Rs 300,000 by T Namberumal Chetty, it is Indo-Saracenic in the main, with Mughal elements thrown in for good effect.

Those were the days when the railways were operated by private companies and Madras Presidency was catered to largely by two – the South Indian Railaway Company (SIR) and the Madras and South Mahratta Railway Company (M&SM). The SIR’s station, now familiar to us as the Egmore Station, was designed by Irwin in 1909. While it paid tribute to Gothic and the Indo-Saracenic, it was to also incorporate Dravidian motifs, perhaps a first in that direction.

In the midst of all this hectic activity, there was time for sport as well. Irwin was asked to design a pavilion for the Madras Cricket Club of which he was a member. He was an active sportsman as well, excelling in cricket, squash and tennis, besides keeping a regular stable of racehorses. The Irwin pavilion at the club, constructed at a cost of Rs 10,000 has since vanished, making way for the vast Chepauk Stadium.

Another Irwin creation was on Mount Road and this was the showroom of TR Tawker & Sons, famed Gujarati jewellers. This later changed hands several times finally coming into possession of the LIC, which demolished the ornate structure for modern highrise in the 1980s.

Ironically, the work for which Irwin is chiefly remembered today is not in Chennai. His crowning glory was the construction of the Amba Vilasa Palace in Mysore on which work began in 1897 and ended in 1912. Immortalised by the Dasara celebrations, this is Irwin’s most famous work. When this was completed, Irwin retired to Ooty, where he died in 1921. His buildings live on to speak of his greatness.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog column –