Victoria Public Hall, illuminated yes, but a shambles inside

At long last, it would seem that there are better days ahead for Victoria Public Hall. Constructed in 1887 as the town hall for the city and to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, the building undoubtedly was at its best before the 1940s. Thereafter it was a story of steady decline and appalling neglect. Now it would seem that there are better days ahead with a detailed project report in place for its restoration and which awaits the nod of the Chief Minister. For heritage enthusiasts, this is good news. But a lot will depend on how the building is run and maintained in the long run. More important will be the plans that are in place to make the structure generate revenue.

Once the home of public entertainment, meetings, indoor sports events and discourses, VP Hall began to visibly decline from the 1950s. The lease for the hall ending in the 1980s saw prolonged litigation and the Corporation of Chennai had to fight tooth and nail to reclaim the space. Even more difficult was the emptying of the open area that belonged to the hall of its squatters – a row of shops and even a high-rise tower that housed a hotel. The occupants had to be evicted and the tower, which was an illegal construction, had to be demolished. Much of this was accomplished during the mayoral tenure of the present Chief Minister, who it is said has for long had warm sentiments towards the hall and the role it had played in the city’s history. Even prior to this, the first attempts at restoring the hall had been taken up by industrialist Suresh Krishna when he was Sheriff of Madras in 1992/1993. Thereafter, a sum of Rs 2 crores was sanctioned for the restoration of the hall when Mr Stalin was Mayor. But all of this came to naught owing to the metro rail work that began in the vicinity. Fortunately, deep drilling below the structure did not seem to affect it and it escaped the fate of Ripon Buildings which suffered numerous cracks and required repairs thereafter. And now there is serious talk once again on the restoration of the hall.

VP Hall in the early 2000s, surrounded by shops

The plan is to make it home to a rolling museum (where thematic displays will be put up periodically), a permanent museum, an entertainment space, restaurants and open-air displays. Much will depend on how these are designed and how the rolling displays are planned and curated. The building it is understood will be administered by a special purpose vehicle that will facilitate the hiring of expert staff who can make much of what is planned a reality. Ultimately however, political will to see all of this through will still be a necessity. It will be recalled that such plans were announced in 2007 for the University Senate House and none of them was realized – the structure was locked up and has in recent times been opened only for the photo biennale. However, there is hope. The police museum in the premises of the erstwhile Commissioner’s Office on Pantheon Road is an excellent piece of work and those in charge of VP Hall ought to at least visit the place to see what has been done.

Trevelyan Memorial fountain at Victoria Public Hall

There are however some simple ground rules that the renovated VP Hall needs to follow. Firstly, access to it must be via public transport. It is near a multi-modal hub and there is no point in encouraging people to come by cars and further congest an already crowded place. Secondly, those in charge must be given a free hand to run it commercially but with guidelines to ensure the heritage character is protected. Thirdly, the rolling exhibition ought to have a three-year calendar to begin with so that displays are planned well ahead to ensure publicity. Lastly, its restoration must be promoted as a project for the city and not for the benefit of one political party or the other.

You may want to read these other articles on VP Hall

Trevelyan Fountain

VP Hall and Suguna Vilasa Sabha

Whither VP Hall restoration

Chennai, A Biography by Sriram V

My book on Chennai is out – it can be bought here