Ripon Building, Illuminated and Well Maintained

Government-owned built heritage in Chennai seems to have never had it so good. All over the city, many Indo-Saracenic structures are getting much needed restoration and if not that, at least a facelift. In the last decade or so, there has certainly been a change in attitude as far as the authorities are concerned over built heritage of the colonial kind. And this is to be welcomed. It is certainly not the happy ending as far as the battle to preserve heritage is concerned but it is undoubtedly progress. The question remains, will this influence private players and more importantly Government undertakings to also preserve the heritage they own? Or can the Government at least work towards making this happen? And so, while the TN Govt protects its heritage, what of private property?

TN Govt protects its heritage

VP Hall – Govt heritage now being restored

All over the city, heritage structures owned by the State are seeing restoration exercises. Work on Chepauk Palace seems to be nearing completion going by the blood red coat of paint it is now doused with. That will hopefully fade with time to a more acceptable shade but what is important is that conservation seems to have been done on scientific lines. VP Hall is under scaffolding and long-promised restoration is underway. In our last issue we reported on how Rajaji Hall is to be restored at a cost of Rs 17 crores (see this link). The Government has since followed that up with an announcement that it plans to renovate the TANUVAS building in Vepery. Last heard, even the Mint Building was supposed to be restored. 

The Pathetic State of Some Govt. Undertaking Structures

Bharath Insurance Building, photographed ten years ago

A crucial factor in all these restorations has been the trained team that the Public Works Department has developed inhouse for such projects. There has therefore been heightened sensitivity. While purists may not agree with all that is done in the name of conservation, there is doubtless a sincere effort to see that old structures are preserved. All this stands in sharp contrast to what is happening to heritage edifices that belong to Government undertakings and private owners. Take the Bharat Insurance Building for instance. It has remained a roofless shell for over a decade now. The LIC is not willing to take up restoration and is awaiting the eventual collapse of the building. The SBI seems to have abandoned its Rajaji Salai premises after a fire that happened several years ago. This building and its neighbour, the GPO, seem to cry out for attention and stand in sharp contrast to the gleaming Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court and the First Line Beach police station. Are the LIC and SBI lacking in funds? Educational institutions fare no better. The Pachayappa’s College in Chetpet is in a bad way but even worse is the condition of the old college building on NSC Bose Road. 

The Pathetic State of Private Heritage

Ananda Vikatan’s second home – property of a private trust and in terrible condition

The record of private players is terrible. Demolition and redevelopment seem to be the only policies in place. Unlike the Government, which in a way has a duty to maintain the heritage in its possession, private players, unless supremely enlightened, view their buildings as so much real estate. And they cannot be blamed for this either. There are no rewards or recognitions in place for heritage conservation. In such a scenario, why should any structure that occupies valuable land be protected? The Government has long been talking about Transfer of Development Rights for those in possession of heritage buildings. It is high time this is brought into play. It can make an enormous difference in protecting private built heritage. The ensuing demand for conservation will also ensure that artisans and engineering professionals will once again turn their attention to traditional methods of construction. This in turn will mean we don’t copy western techniques that are alien to our weather conditions and ventilation requirements. Is the Government willing to take this step?

This article appeared in Madras Musings dated July 1, 2023 and can be read here –