About 15,135 sq. ft of historical building is to be demolished by Metro Rail

The city is in the verge of losing another important heritage building. However, this time it would not be a mysterious fire that would devour it, as in the case of Moore Market, nor would blatant apathy that would tear it down, as in the case of Bentinck building. Indifference and bureaucratic machination is set to bring down a chunk of P. Orr & Sons, the 130-year-old landmark building on Anna Salai.

Based on an elaborate survey of heritage structures in Chennai, the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee designated P. Orr & Sons building, home to the renowned watchmakers, as a heritage structure. The committee concluded that this building is a prime landmark in the city and assigned it the prestigious Grade I status.

However, Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) disagrees. Wanting to demolish a large part of this building, it argues that only the showroom — a small portion fronting the Anna Salai — is a heritage structure.

The CMRL has not explained the basis for its conclusion. Neither a field survey nor research appears to have been conducted for this purpose.

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), instead of providing clarity to the issue, has made unsubstantiated statements undermining the hopes of protecting the heritage building.

Senior officials of the CMRL told The Hindu that CMDA has given it in writing that only a portion of the structure has heritage value. “Only around 4,000 sq ft area of P. Orr & Sons has heritage value,” confirmed an official of CMDA.

This statement is refuted by Sujatha Shankar, a member of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) constituted to look at heritage structures in Chennai. “This is totally surprising. The heritage status of P. Orr & Sons building in totality was never doubted for a moment, nor was it discussed in any of our meetings in terms of square footage. If CMDA has made any statement in terms of square feet or portions it is factually incorrect.”

The P. Orr & Sons originated in 1849 and moved into the current premises in 1873. It produced the best silverware, traded in diamonds, dealt with ammunitions and indeed watches.

It is clear from the literature that this heritage building, designed by architect Robert Chisholm — the British architect who also designed Senate House — did not limit itself to the showroom in the front as claimed by the CMRL.

C. Rajagopalachari, visiting this building during its centenary celebrations in 1949, had said that the firm’s commitment to train young boys in industrial skills was what appealed to him the most.

“When the CMRL presented the design for the metro station, the heritage conservation committee repeatedly raised the question whether any structure in P. Orr & Sons would be demolished. These were not answered,” Sujatha Shankar said.

When contacted, the CMRL explained that about 15,135 sq. ft area of the P. Orr & Sons building is to be demolished and in that place amenities such as “generator room and electrical panels will be located.”

“The CMRL needs this place for locating only the ancillary facilities for the station, which can be easily located in an alternate area. While development is certainly needed, they should not in haste destroy places of heritage which cannot be recreated,” Sujatha Shankar emphasised.

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