Portion of the late 19 century building was declared unfit for use; officials now consider restoration

The historic General Post Office on Rajaji Salai may well be termed a phoenix of a heritage building, for the number of times it has recouped after mishaps.

The civil wing of the postal department is now assessing the feasibility of implementing the recommendations of an INTACH report to restore a sizeable portion of the late 19 century building. The section currently lies unoccupied for fear of latent dangers.

According to sources in the department, the report which was commissioned by the former post master general, covers the ground, first and second floor of the eastern corner of the building used by the postal department. Of this, the ground floor is currently being used, they said. The other half of the bifurcated building is being used by the telecom department, according to them.

According to an official, the portions of ‘right-side’ of the building’ had been declared unfit for use, and the departments functioning in those portions had been relocated to other parts of the building in 2007. K. Kalpana, conservation architect, who worked on the report, says that she had suggested that the work be carried out in three phases, as close to 20,000 square feet of the heritage building was not in use when she was working on the report earlier this year.

“Collectively, it is a three-year project and I had suggested that work on the roofing be done in the first phase since it is the most crucial,” she said.

However, officials in the civil department note that restoration on such a massive scale is replete with challenges, including red-tape. “Studying the feasibility is only the first stage. If satisfactory, it has to be approved by the administrative wing of the department and the Heritage Conservation Committee, following which funding needs to be looked into. And, since it requires heavy funding, it may not be allocated at one go,” the official said, adding that he could not put a date to when the study would be completed.

Sourcing expertise and material, also would be a challenge, the official noted. “When we were restoring the elevation of a heritage postal building in Bangalore, we could not declare the work complete for a long time because the original material was not available, and had to wait for it.” However, the official, also said that since it was an important structure, they would accord it priority. 

According to M.M. Inamdar’s ‘Madras GPO- Earlier Postal History of Madras Presidency’, the idea of establishing a GPO in the premises of Fort St. George was first mooted in 1785 and shortly thereafter A.M. Campbel was first appointed to the office of post master general.

On how it came to function in its current premises, he wrote that the GPO was first located in a building on the beach in Fort. St. George Square. In 1837, it was removed to a building in Fort commonly called the old bank. In 1856, it was shifted to Pophams Broadway from where it moved to its present building in 1884, he writes. In 2000, the GPO was witness to a fire that destroyed the main counter, sorting halls, computers and stores, and the speed post and foreign mail sections. More recently in 2011, a portion of the roof collapsed during the monsoons.

An employee who fondly recalls how a portion of the building designed by architect R.F. Chisholm was a vantage point to see the harbour and enjoy the see breeze, said that she hopes that the building would be restored to its original glory.

“Today, anyone can erect swanky buildings, but how many would get an opportunity to work in such an old and unique building,” she said.

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