These buildings have stood for a long time, but if they are to survive the next few decades, they will need all the help they can get. Chithira Vijaykumar spoke to S. Muthiah, heritage conservationist and chronicler of the city, to identify five heritage structures that have stood the test of time — but, now badly need a helping hand.
The Regional Institute of Ophthalmology
Or, as it is generally called, the Egmore Eye Hospital, is the oldest eye hospital in Asia. It was started in the summer of 1819, when the British were struggling to keep up with the medical needs of their officers and people, and diseases of the eye were on the rise. It is also the second oldest eye hospital in the world, the first being the Moorfield Eye Hospital in the U.K.
As of today, you could walk right past what was once the majestic home of the Nawabs of the Carnatic, and not even know it's there. Almost completely obscured by the buildings around it, the structure, completed around 1768, represents the beginnings of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the sub-continent. This was a style that British architects developed, combining elements from European architecture with native Indian styles - a tactic intended to appease the Indians.
The National Art Gallery and the Government Museum
The doors of the Art Gallery have been closed for seven long years now. When cracks were discovered in the 100-year-old building in 2002, the building was closed, and has been left untouched since. Over the decades, the 158-year-old museum has seen several renovations, which have systematically reduced the area for the exhibits. Hundreds of artefacts and paintings wait in reserve, as there is now no place to display them.
Fort St. George
Currently housing the State secretariat, this was, ironically, the first seat of power of the British in India. The East India Company, having come to India in 1600 A.D., needed space to establish a permanent settlement. They negotiated a grant for land on the Coromandel coast, called it Madraspattinam, and constructed the nucleus of Fort St. George in 1639. It was within these ramparts that the first engineering school, the first Western-style school and the first Corporation in the country were started; all milestones for contemporary India. And, it would be around this fort that the city of Madras would eventually grow.
The Bharat Insurance building
In 1894, W.E. Smith, proprietor of one of the leading pharmaceutical businesses in south India, ordered the construction of a building befitting the company's stature - and got it done in just three short years. In 1897, the Kardyl Building, as it was called then, was inaugurated.
Since then, the building has changed many hands; it was first sold to Spencer's, and then to the Bharat Insurance Company, which was subsequently taken over by the Dalmias. Finally, when life insurance was nationalised in 1956, the LIC became the patron of the magnificent construction, its minarets, domes, arches and all.
Recently, the LIC revealed its plans to bring down the structure; a decision that was met with disapproval from everyone from conservationists to the Union Government. The fate of the building is in court.