Madras Day | Step inside Chennai’s iconic Ripon building

We all know this building from the outside, but what does it look like when you walk through it’s heavy doors? We take a walk though the Greater Chennai Corporation’s Ripon building? Or, should we say buildings.

August 23, 2023 03:32 pm | Updated August 24, 2023 01:18 pm IST

The regal Ripon Building (built in 1913) is the house of Greater Chennai Corporation.

The regal Ripon Building (built in 1913) is the house of Greater Chennai Corporation. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

At 8am on Wednesday, a sprightly group of history buffs are gathered outside the Ripon Building, impatient to step inside its imposing Madras terrace roof. Despite rains the previous night, the sun is beats down on the crowd.

This is when Thirupurasundari Sevvel, founder of Nam Veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai, walks in and announces that in about five minutes, the group will be able to see two new temporary additions to the building for Madras Day — the Akkam Pakkam exhibit by the Greater Chennai Corporation where school students from the city trained by the Chennai Photo Biennale displayed their work; and The Hindu’s Archival photo exhibit with photos of Chennai post-Independence.

She stops and points to a picture of Tara Cherian, the first woman mayor of Madras at the gates of Ripon Building. “Did you know that anyone can walk into the mayor’s office for two hours each day to get their grievances redressed,” she asks at this heritage walk part of The Hindu’s Festival of Chennai celebrations.

This is not a piece of information that a lot of the crowd knows. There are nods and whispers of curiosity, occasional clearances of doubts and some furious picture-taking. After all, walking into the Ripon Building (built in 1913) is not a daily occurrence for most of us.

Participants at a heritage walk inside Ripon building, the house of Greater Chennai Corporation on Wednesday.

Participants at a heritage walk inside Ripon building, the house of Greater Chennai Corporation on Wednesday. | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Inside out

She then points to the roof and asks the crowd if they know the Tamil equivalent of what is considered to be a British innovation — the Madras terrace roof. One voice quips, “Vara vecha sevaru”. Thirupurasundari is justifiably miffed while speaking of the ceilings. “Such roofing systems can be found across South India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. It has different names based on where you are from. The British chose to adapt style in their buildings because of how effective it seemed back then. One should know what the Madras terrace roof is in the local language. Not the generic British English equivalent,” she says, telling the crowd of its several other Tamil names.

As we exit the exhibit, Thirupurasundari points towards the Eastern face of the structure. She speaks of the stark white walls having Corinthian architecture with Greek and Roman influences including motifs over the large windows. The structure was deliberately made to induce the ‘wow factor’ among migrants who arrive in the city, she says. The colonisers knew how to grab and retain attention.

“Notice how it is called ‘Ripon Buildings’ and not just ‘building’. The place has a number of offices that come together,” she says. This is when she adds that pleasant Madras days have seen meetings and banquets hosted on the its vast terrace.

By 8.30am, the sun is high in the sky. The group briefly stops to peep through asbestos sheets to look at the Victoria Hall adjoining the building. It is undergoing restoration and has been deliberately shielded from the public eye. There is emerald green tarp wrapped around its rich, red body. This however, doesn’t deter the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.

Back when it was inaugurated in 1887, Thirupurasundari says that it would overflow with beautiful women and handsome men looking to impress their counterparts. Loud, charming banquets were the norm. “The who’s who of the city would all be here,” she adds.

In minutes, the group walks back inside and is left to briefly roam the ground and first floor of the building. “This statue of Eric Conran-Smith, the Commissioner, Corporation of Madras, from 1928 to 1931 in motion. His drapes are smooth and wispy,” says the historian as we pass by the large white man at the entrance.

Wooden staircase seen at Ripon Building house of Greater Chennai Corporation.

Wooden staircase seen at Ripon Building house of Greater Chennai Corporation. | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Here, Thiruppurasundari speaks of the concoction of limestone, jaggery and myrobalan that has gone into making the walls. She also speaks fondly of the floral and trellis motifs on the thick teak staircase connecting the first and the second floor of the building. Greater Chennai Corporation commissioner, J Radhakrishnan whose office resides in the building, walks in to ask if all is well. He quickly rushes away to step into his chamber and continue his day.

More pictures and poses follow. By the end of the hour, we know all about the floor, the roof, the walls, the stairs and the statues of the Ripon Building. Or should we say buildings.

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