The Third Lighthouse dome, seen from a window of the second

In the last two years or so, the High Court of Madras has embarked on some very commendable initiatives by way of showcasing its heritage. Its museum, started in a small way a decade back, moved into new premises a few days ago, when the entire campus celebrated its 125th year. The entire building is undergoing maintenance and restoration, and its collection of art is being catalogued. The second lighthouse of the city, located at one end of the premises, has been restored and a photo-gallery has been set up in its base. Several Presidency Magistrate’s courts in the city are being put through very rigorous conservation.

A subterranean passage in the second lighthouse

If all of this is not commendable enough, the Court, by throwing open its premises for heritage walks, has shown that its heart is in the right place. Not only has this encouraged heritage enthusiasts and lovers of history to visit the campus, it also brings the entire precinct much closer to the residents of the city and tourists. The tour, in place for over a year now, is seeing numbers pick up and, what’s more, has created a sense of pride in the staff of the court. True, the tour is held sporadically, but with some better marketing efforts there can be no doubt that it will soon become a regular feature.

The Second Lighthouse

This is really a remarkable achievement, one that other Government bodies with historic premises would do well to emulate. Take for instance the assembly and secretariat building at Fort St George. Or for that matter the King’s Barracks in the same premises. What prevents the Government/Army (who respectively control the two structures) from training a few of the staff and have them conduct tours on Sundays when the whole Fort is emptied of normal activity? Why can’t the University of Madras do the same with the Senate House campus? The Presidency College could similarly take a leaf out of the High Court’s book and encourage visitors with students taking them around the place. The same applies to Queen Mary’s College as well. We could even extend this a little further and have the GPO, the State Bank of India buildings (Rajaji Salai, Anna Salai and Anderson Road), the Bharat Insurance Building (if and when restored that is), Ripon Building and VP Hall offer such an experience. If only all of this were to happen, what a dynamic city Chennai would be, at least as far as heritage was concerned!

The spiral stairway of the Second Lighthouse

The world over, tours of historic premises are a sure way of ensuring public interest and also upkeep of the property. Somehow in Chennai this has never caught on. The closest you can get to a heritage building is its front gate and, more often than not, a security guard or two will swoop down on you and prevent you from even taking a photograph. This Masonic secrecy is most unwarranted. It also reinforces the commonly held view that most of these premises are badly maintained and so visitors are discouraged from taking photographs out of fear that these would be made public.

There is one other technique that we specialise in as well. In the outside chance of a heritage building being restored, the only use it is put to is that of a museum, and not a very well kept or presented one at that. It is high time that this is given up. What people are looking for today are experiential tours, of living and thriving campuses. It would be good if some of the architectural masterpieces of Chennai are thrown open for heritage tours, just as the High Court has done.