It is raining even as these lines are being written. The Schmidt Memorial on Elliot’s Beach must also be exposed to these rains. With the monument already in bad shape, and with a vigorous monsoon predicted this year, it is anybody’s guess as to whether the structure will survive till 2014. In the meanwhile, official apathy continues to hold sway, as there appears to be no action forthcoming to save or strengthen the edifice.
Inaugurated on November 29, 1931, the structure commemorates the valour of K.A.J. Schmidt, a Danish shipping executive, who drowned on December 30, 1930 while trying to save the lives of others. The then Governor of Madras, Sir George Stanley, ordered its construction. Built without a stone foundation, it is essentially a simple brick and lime mortar structure. The design, which provides for a huge arch and trelliswork on the sides, is, however, a most apt one for a beach-fronted edifice. Letting the wind pass through these openings has ensured that the monument has weathered many a cyclone. A landmark at what was once fairly open country, it is an enduring symbol of our city.
With practically no maintenance of any kind, however, the structure has become weak. A huge crack has developed on the arch and this has travelled right down to the base. The monument is, therefore, in danger of toppling over and has remained that way since early this year. The Chennai Corporation was quick to announce action in February. A private foundation spearheaded a study of the edifice. Experts from IIT were called in and they submitted a report tracing the problems to the foundation of the structure, which was in urgent need of strengthening. The report called for increasing the sand level all around by 500 metres to a distance of 30 metres all around the monument. It also suggested that the periphery be shored up with stone or turf. Based on this, the Government had floated a tender and said that work would soon thereafter commence. That was in May. There has been complete silence ever since.
The next step has been only to cordon off the monument. The Corporation did this in August in what it claimed had become necessary to “protect visitors from the monument.” Rather ironically, it is the monument that has required protection from visitors, having suffered increasingly at their hands! For years, it has borne the brunt of graffiti, defacing and vandalism. It has been a tippler’s haunt and the area surrounding it is a convenient dump for every bit of garbage from the surrounding areas. Even if the structure survives and is eventually restored, it will have to be provided some security cover if it is not to degenerate again, such being our citizenry’s civic mindedness. That said, it must be pointed out that fencing off the structure in the immediate short-term was a sensible decision as any thoughtless vandalism can trigger a collapse and consequently cause injuries or loss of life.
As for the restoration, the silence of the Corporation, which is the agency responsible for it, is baffling. If it is facing problems with respect to the necessary expertise, it must come out in the open and ask for help. There are plenty of trained conservation architects in the city who in turn can suggest artisans qualified to take on the task. If it is a question of funding too, it can be reasonably assured that there are private organisations who will be most willing to help. What is needed is immediate action. What is the point in simply agreeing that something needs to be done and not doing anything about it?