Madras Miscellany History & Culture

The Papal Knight’s legacy

A small item in a local newspaper caught my eye. It referred to the legacy of one of the richest persons Madras has known. But as usual it knights him in British terms and calls him Sir John de Monte when he was in fact a Papal Knight, a pillar of the Roman Catholic Church. And it is to the Church that he left all his property and wealth after a series of personal misfortunes (Miscellany, June 18, 2007).The terms of his will are stringent to say the least.

The key clause reads, “ It is my will and desire that none of my landed property, nor any part of my Plate, Furniture and Fixtures shall be sold, and I request my Executors and Trustees to Let all my Houses, Gardens, and Grounds on the best and most advantageous terms that can be obtained, and the Rents thereof, after paying for the repairs of the Houses (as I wish them to be always preserved and kept in the best order), shall be added to the residue of my Estate for Pious and Charitable uses, as hereinafter declared and mentioned.”

All this was to be implemented faithfully and continued “principally under thecontrol and management of the Bishop or Vicar General of San Thomé.” That Bishop is now the Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore. The recent news item (and ad) refers to 11.65 grounds of Ben’s Gardens (a small part of a huge property) in the Boat Club area that had for years been leased to Parry’s. Selling the property after Parry’s had quit had been very much in the air but led to prolonged litigation, much of it still continuing.

The Papal Knight’s legacy

The recent notification would indicate that some part of the issue has been resolved to an extent by “leasing (‘letting’) out” the property. However, the earnings have to be used for poor Orphans, Widows and Distressed Families, for pensioners, Charity Schools and other deserving objects of charity, according to another paragraph in the will.

Will the present settlement ensure that this part of the will is also adhered to?

The first de Monte property to be leased out was Moubray’s Cupola and Gardens, 105 acres and buildings the Adyar Club successfully negotiated for in 1890. By the late 1940s, the Club could not manage so much property on an abbreviated membership and requested the Archbishop to take back a substantial portion of it.

Archbishop Mathias was only too glad to do so, as the rent was a pittance compared to the extent of the property. But the Archbishop went further. To do justice to de Monte’s bequest, he felt much of the acreage should be sold. And went to the Court for a ruling. This resulted in Adyar Property Holdings buying 40 acres, Messrs Sathyanarayana Nagaraj & Co much more, and the American Government land for its Consul-General’s house and four other bungalows for officers.

The Papal Knight’s legacy

Still leased to the Adyar Club was about 12 acres. Adyar Properties, a consortium of leading British firms, paid ₹27,000 per acre in 1949, the American Government ₹40, 000 around then. By the late 1950s, there was no scope for two European clubs in Madras and the Adyar Club and Madras Club decided to merge, the latter taking over the former. The takeover included the Archbishop seeking the Court’s permission to dispose of what was left of Moubray’s Gardens. In 1963, the Club recorded that it had been sold 229 grounds and 1,862 square feet for ₹7,89,327.50 by the Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, the grounds and buildings that had hitherto been leased to the Adyar Club.

Not far from here is de Monte’s Colony (Miscellany, March 23, 2015) where de Monte once lived. Its future is still very much in the air as is that of other de Monte properties, including acreage in Covelong, where his mentally ill wife had been confined, with a church for solace.

A courtyard to vanish?

Lamantia of the New Orleans firm of architects, Burk, Lebreton and Lamantia, would be turning in his grave if word ever reached him of what the US Consulate-General and its advisers are planning to do to the courtyard around which he and his colleagues designed the Mount Road Consulate offices that were inaugurated in January 1969. An iconic courtyard, it was a pleasure in times past when access was free, to move through it or sit out chatting with S Krishnan, for years the senior-most employee and the most travelled person in that office. And Krishnan had no little role in the courtyard concept becoming a reality.

Lamantia, when he came to Madras in 1962/63, had Krishnan take him around to have a look at the City’s architecture — but did not fall for Indo-Saracenic. Let’s check out South India, he told Krishnan, and off they set out through Tamil Nadu, and little corners of the neighbouring States.

As Krishnan later recalled, “Lamantia grew more and excited by the temples he saw, but what eventually took his fancy were the traditional houses of Thanjavur and Karaikudi.” Krishnan added, “The rectangular houses were built around a central courtyard, open to the elements, with rooms opening onto verandahs that ran all around the courtyard. This became the final design of the Consulate-General building.

But Lamantia never quite forgot his fascination with temples, and where another architect might have made the elevation of the building fancy, he had the walls of all four facades of the building studded with little pieces of rock, quarried from hills near Madras, and painstakingly pressed into place by an army of women workers.”

It was with an appreciation, possibly even a love, of South Indian architecture that Lamantia, descended from Don Quixote’s village, and his colleagues planned the Madras Consulate-General. Today, the heretics want to abbreviate the courtyard or do away with it all together. I suggest they look at Apple’s new doughnut-like headquarters in Cupertino and its open-to-the-elements centre. It’s a concept South Indian architecture has had for millennia. To do away with it in Madras would be a desecration.

When the postman


* Satyamurti (Miscellany, June 4) is a very popular name around Pudukkottai, the main deity of nearby Tirumayam temple being Satyamurti, writes CS Rajan, whose brother Kuppuswamy used to sing at Congress meetings during the early 1940s in Pudukottai. He also points out that it is SG Kittappa and not SC Kittappa. The printer’s devil apologises.

* The Grubbs (Miscellany, June 11) are first cousins, came a prompt response from Dr Ravi Santhosham.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 11:07:50 PM |

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