The Ripon Buildings completes a 100 years today. It was on November 26, 1913, that the then Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, “unlocked the doors in the presence of a large and fashionable gathering, amid a flourish of trumpets.” V. SRIRAM travels down the stately corridors of time.

Ripon Building

The Corporation of Madras, one of the oldest in the world and definitely the first in India, for it was established by Royal Charter in 1688, had its birth in Fort St. George. Its first home, a handsome colonnaded structure just behind St. Mary’s Church, is now the Fort Commandant’s Office. Sometime in the 19th Century, the Corporation moved out into rented premises on Errabalu Chetty Street, somewhere in the vicinity of the Presentation Convent. All accounts agree that it was cramped and in every way unsuitable for the civic body.

The search for a suitable location for a new home for the Corporation began sometime in 1905. It was in 1908 that land was finally allotted in one corner of People’s Park, next to Victoria Public Hall. The foundation stone was laid by Lord Minto, Viceroy of India, on December 11, 1909. Work then began on the edifice.

Designed by Government Architect G.S.T. Harris, it is a structure that is neo-Classical in style. Spanning an area of 81m by 41m, it encompasses a floor space of 10,000 sq.m. over three floors. The structure is built around two courtyards that are separated by a grand staircase. The façade, with two porticos, one each on the southern and western faces, is a series of composite columns and pilasters that support semi-circular arches on the ground and first floors and rectangular openings on the top-most floor. The columns that abound in the building are a visual treat for their capitals are elaborately decorated with bunches of grapes, vines and other symbols of prosperity. The doors are all provided with slats that can be raised and lowered to allow for fresh air to circulate. Built of brick and lime and plastered with the latter, Ripon Buildings cost Rs. 7.50 lakh and took four years to complete.

The central tower, complements those on Victoria Public Hall and Central Station. A fine view of the three can be had from the Willingdon (Periyar) Bridge. Ripon Buildings’ tower rises to 132 ft. and has an 8ft. clock dial on each of its four faces. The clock, used to ring the Westminster chimes, the same as in the Big Ben in London, every quarter. For long silent, this is being restored and will ring again soon. The Council Chamber on the third floor, is remarkable for its wealth of woodwork, stained glass and parquet ceiling. The Mayor’s chair was a gift from the first Mayor of the 20th Century — Raja Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar. It is modelled on the Speaker’s Chair of the House of Commons in London and is fronted by the Mayor’s desk, which has a pair of brackets to support the mayoral mace. The Commissioner’s chair is a work of art too and is an older relic. On its backrest is carved the first coat-of-arms of Madras — St. George slaying the dragon.

Ripon Buildings may have been designed by G.S.T. Harris but he retired soon after work commenced and it was left to J.R. Coats, Engineer of the Corporation, to oversee its completion. He has a road in T.Nagar named after him.

The principal contractor was P. Loganatha Mudaliar, a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete. Ascertaining that the land allocated for Ripon Buildings was marshy, he had the foundations rest on 750 terracotta wells of 5ft. diameter each, all of them filled with concrete. These have survived intact till now. Another contractor, whose nature of work is not known, was Ramsay and Co. The bricks for Ripon Buildings came from the Choolaimedu area, where the master-builder of Madras — Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty and his partner Nemali Pattabhirama Rao owned kilns.

The structure is now undergoing a major restoration exercise, which is fast nearing completion. Its 101st year should see it as a pristine edifice that will survive for several centuries more to come.

This article appeared in The Metroplus feature of The Hindu on 26th November 2013