History & Culture

The Mount Road that was

Chennai is just waking up when a lively group of 35 meets in front of Agurchand Mansion on Mount Road at 6.30 am. The group is on a mission: to discuss art and history, specifically, Madras’ architectural gems.

Hosted by Madras Inherited (MI), a group of architects dedicated to conserving ancient structures, the walk, held over the weekend, lasted two hours and covered 10 buildings along the stretch.

As Roshini Ganesh, the tour guide, explains, “It’s all about exploring the city in ways that we’ve never known before. One part of our work is designing and curating these walks in different parts of the city. We believe the best way to explore any place is by walking: the details that you take in are unparalleled, something that you’ll never come across in a vehicle.”

With this, she starts the first leg of the tour, Agurchand Mansion. She explains how the red stone and brick structure reflects Persian influences. Previously known as the Khaleeli Mansion, it was owned by a Persian merchant. The building was used over time as housing for employees and a hub for private detectives. It presently houses small shops.

The Mount Road that was

The group walks further down the road to the Gove building, which now houses Titanium Motors, famous for its Mercedes showroom. It was previously known as the Cuddon Building, named after the owner, George Cuddon who worked with the Simpsons Company.

“He designed and constructed the building because that was when royalty was still in play, and you needed a showroom that displayed the lavish cars of that time, like the Rolls Royce. By 1916, the building was completed and established as Cuddon Motors,” Roshini explains. It has a showroom on the ground floor, and an office space on the upper floor with an external staircase on the side.

Old and new
  • Mount Road in the 1700s, was lined with garden houses, and large colonial mansions with balconies and verandas set amidst lush gardens. In the early 1900s, it became the entertainment hub for the British.
  • The LIC structure was built taking inspiration from the Art Deco movement which came into being in New York. It was modelled off the UN building, and was also the first in the city to have an electrical elevator.
  • The Poompuhar building was going to be torn down for Metro construction. But, due to a spirited push back, the building still stands.

Ronald E Smith, a participant in the walking tour, says he has seen the city grow from 1940s, and adds, “One of the building’s best known establishments was an exclusive gentleman’s salon in the 1940s and 50s.” He recalls with amusement how one could get haircuts for 15 paisa outside, but would have to pay 15 rupees at the Gove building salon.

The Mount Road that was

After visiting other spots like the Addison and the SBI building, as well as Higginbotham’s (reportedly India’s oldest bookstore) the group looks up in awe at the LIC building, as its history and storyline are told.

Even more magnificent is the crumbling Bharat Insurance Building, which stands opposite Poompuhar. Roshini says it is currently owned by the LIC Insurance Group. “The Archaeological Survey of India and LIC are in tussle over what to do with the building she says, adding “It’s an absolute shame what has happened to it, considering it’s a phenomenal piece of architecture with Indo-Saracenic influences. Every part of the facade looks different. There was a proposal to bring down the building, and a counter-campaign to restore it, which didn’t happen either.” She adds that right now, it just stays there, with neither any additional work done, nor any alteration. She adds that the LIC’s heritage community is talking about converting it into a museum. Then adds that the newer technology for restoration may be expensive, but speculates that the costs may be recovered once it’s done.

The Mount Road that was

The last stop of the tour is the quaint agraharam-style Bootha Perumal village, which Mira Kannan of the MI, says is over a century old. Most of the houses here are owned by the adjoining 300-year-old Arulmigu Pachaiamman temple and have courtyards that bring in ample light and ventilation. Shalini Ravikumar, a member of MI says, “In the UK, the government gives heritage funds to preserve many of these heritage houses. But, we don’t have funds which can be diverted to the protection of private properties.”

The MI team hopes to one day make a significant difference through research, and raise awareness on Chennai’s many fading gems.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 10:22:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-architectural-gems-of-mount-road-and-the-history-behind-them/article28250379.ece

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