Restored splendour

Updated - September 24, 2016 05:21 pm IST

Published - September 24, 2016 05:18 pm IST

The restored Gove building

The restored Gove building

Driving along Mount Road the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how well what was the Cuddon Building, and is now the Gove Building, has been restored. While the tendency has been to daub red on red brick-facaded buildings, losing sight of the white outlines in the process, Gove Building, renovated as a showroom fit for the best of the Mercedes Benzes, has put back all those white outlines and re-created an original look that immediately catches the eye. Once described as “the finest showroom in India”, it could well lay claim to that title again if the fact that it is a restored heritage building is considered.

But, this brick facade intrigues me. The building was built exactly a hundred years ago and a description of it shortly after its construction for Simpson’s reads as follows: “A large new showroom for motor cars has been constructed recently, and it is most ornate in character. It is a double-storeyed building of green and white stone, quarried near Madras, and has frontage of 90 feet upon the main road. Plate-glass windows, 18 feet in length, a special kind of door, shutters, and sub-blinds have been imported from England. The floor is laid in Italian marble and the inside pillars are of very chaste design.” No redbrick façade mentioned in all this, but the exposed brick has been there ever since I can remember — at least from when I started taking a second look at buildings. So, is the red-brick façade a later embellishment — or did the writer just pay attention to the granite and marble?

The building owes its genesis and splendour entirely to George Underhill Cuddon, a Scotsman who joined Simpson’s as an Assistant in 1890 and headed the firm from 1898 till his death in March 1916, a month before his dream building was opened. Cuddon joined the firm during the last days of the carriage, building which had given Simpson’s an international reputation. As the age of the motor car dawned, Cuddon saw an opportunity that would make the transition easier. Simpson’s began to import chassis and using its carriage-building skills custom-built bodies for the chassis they sold. And then when the factories abroad began to offer cars with factory-built bodies cheaper, Simpson’s became an importer — and needed a showroom to show off its imported cars. That’s when Cuddon got the building of the showroom going. Simpson’s bought the plot numbered 34 Mount Road and work started there on the new showroom in 1914. Progress was slow because of war-time delays in receiving imported material and so it was April 1916 before the showroom was opened. Sadly, Cuddon had been ill from 1915 and did not live to take part in the inauguration.

With Simpson’s pulling out of the motor car business, it sold the showroom to V S Thiruvengadaswamy Mudaliar who re-named it Gove Building. I’ve still to discover who or what ‘Gove’ was. In its new owner’s hands it remained a well-maintained showroom with garage facilities in the land behind. Then came restoration and a showroom fit for a Benz, as the advertising today proclaims. If only others would follow the VST Titanium Motors’ lead.

A station in waiting

A letter the other day from Augustine Roy Rozario of the Anglo-Indian Suburban Front had me thinking that I had never visited the Railway Museum in Perambur. Although I have heard much good said about it, the distance had long deterred me from visiting the Museum. And I’m sure it would be the same in the case of many other locals, not to mention visitors to the city, both domestic and foreign. No doubt, over the years, it has been visited by numerous bussed-in schoolchildren and occasional tourist groups, but I wonder what the actual flow of adult visitors has been over the years. Stuck as it is in a Northern corner of the city I don’t think it has received the kind of numbers it, from all accounts, warrants.

Rozario’s letter reminded me of all this because he has suggested an alternative site for an additional railway museum. He points out that that heritage precinct where the historic Royapuram Railway Station is sited would be an ideal location for a museum with “a few steam locos, and items like a turntable, water column, token pouch, other mementoes, photographs etc.”

Wondering about what to do with the heritage Royapuram Station Building, it has been suggested in the past that it be integrated in a third Madras terminus here. Such a terminus could be enhanced if its adjacent areas — say where the old M & SM offices were — were developed as a railway museum accessible to the majority of city dwellers and visitors.

Over-optimistic estimates of the financial viability of such an institution are not what the Railways should be looking at. It should be paying attention to the fact that the Royapuram station building needs to be preserved, maintained and put to better use and that, laudable though the effort has been in Perambur, a more central site is needed for a railway museum that would attract more visitors. And, the first one would be a buff like me of the steam era. What better location for that can there be than the site of the first railway station in the South and now the country’s oldest one?

The Giraffe in Madras

Josephine Felton, an old English friend, keeps in touch from time to time, to relate memories of her years in Madras in the 1960s when her father was Acting Deputy High Commissioner for the U.K. in South India on several occasions. She recently sent me a couple of fascinating little stories. I wonder whether there is anyone around who can remember the key character in her second story.

Josephine writes:

“Had lunch with George Newnes, who was Trade Commissioner in Madras in the early 1960s, and is now 101-and-a-half years old. He is busy recording another album of songs on his Hawaiian guitar and doing the research for a story of the origin of the tune to go with each one. His eyesight is very bad but he has a magnified computer screen and keyboard and can read about four words at a time through a huge magnifying glass poised over the top.

“We had a long chat about Georges Graf, who was French Trade Commissioner (or equivalent) at that time and who turned out in 1985 to have been a Double Agent in the War, with the code name Giraffe. When we were in Madras, Graf was friendly with a lady called Madame Mink (you couldn’t make it up could you?) who lived in the flat below us in Nungambakkam. Graf was arrested by the French and locked up in 1985 but they let him out and none of us saw him again — he used to come to our South Indian Reunions every year until then. We have a photo of him toasting The Queen, but I’m still not sure which side he was on.”

I wonder whether anyone can add more detail to what sounds like a fascinating story.

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