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Exploring the Fort St. George: A neglected heritage complex

April 1, 2013 by

Transparent Chennai has mapped over 400 out of the 467 heritage building listed in the Padmanabhan Committee report and in our continuing effort to identify and map the remaining 60 odd heritage structures in the city Roshan Toshniwal and I have been wandering around the city to locate them. We started with Fort St. George where we were yet to find ten of the seventeen sites the complex is supposed to have according to the report.

Before visiting the Fort, I tried to gather information about these ten structures and was partially successful in locating ‘The Arsenal’ which lies between Clive House and Wellesley House. It was designed by Colonel Patrick Ross and is presently being used by the military as their supply depot. The report states that it has thick groined masonry vaults with a bomb proof arch and was used for storing ammunition in the past. It is the same with the Garrison Engineers Depot located opposite the Fort police station which is now in military use. As entry is restricted and the structure is caged with a large steel gate it was not possible to determine the state of upkeep of these structures.

Since most of the structures including the museum come under the ambit of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), we approached the ASI office located in Clive House for help in locating the unmapped sites. As we were making enquiries within, we met an ASI official, who readily accompanied us to show eight of the ten unmapped sites and narrated the distressing story of the bureaucratic complexities in maintaining and restoring these dilapidated buildings.

As we started looking at each one of these lesser known heritage structures, our impression was one of neglect, abandonment and the low priority being given to save them as they are crumbled and dilapidated ruins. For example the Chaplain’s House which was located opposite the Last House on Snob’s alley is now completely ruined with little trace left of its presence.

The last house left on Snob’s Alley, also known as St. Thomas Street, is partially crumbled when we went and is presently being restored by the ASI. The Nursing Sister’s house is located in a building to the north of the last house and is in good condition. It is currently being used as residence by some of the church staff and nuns from St. Mary’s Church. The Big Warehouse is situated right opposite the Last House on Snob’s Alley and is in a complete state of disrepair with half of the roof structure having caved in. We were prohibited from photographing the neglected state of the buildings as the ASI official was particular that this does not get reported widely.

The old INS Adyar building is located next to the present museum and accommodates a grocery store and cafeteria within besides a mess and office for some naval officers. These structures built within Fort St. George are distinct as they truly represent the classical side of the colonial architectural style that is not seen in any of the other heritage complex build by the British in Chennai. After 1857 the British have stuck to the Indo-Saracenic style of building with exposed brick and stone, cusp arches and double columns.

One way to save these structures would be by putting them to adaptive re-use by which we would not only preserve the heritage character and constantly maintaining it but also adding value to it. Many of the existing structures within the Fort are already being actively used by the military, ASI and the state government. But most of these lesser known structures that we identified from our visit are in complete ruin and would require considerable, financial resources and a strong will from the ASI and the Tamil Nadu government to renovate them for adaptive re-use.

Having lived in the USA for over two decades I see how much importance the United States gives to preserve many heritage structures by renovating them for adaptive re-use, despite the US having a much younger history than India’s. It has gone all out starting from the 1970’s and 1980’s to save heritage structures by passing stringent laws that have made it mandatory for state and local city governments to find solutions to save existing heritage structures when faced with the onslaught of modern development. Here are a few examples of heritage sites in the US that I visited which have been converted from old disused heritage structures into financially viable tourist and commercial entities through adaptive re-use.

  • Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco was the first major adaptive reuse project in the United States opening in 1964
  • Station Square in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was built by converting the mile-long former Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad terminal and headquarters into a retail, office, hotel, and tourist destination
  • The Pratt Street Power Plant in Baltimore was converted into offices, retail establishments and restaurants
  • The Western Metal Supply Co. building on 7th Avenue (between K and L Streets) in San Diego, where I recently lived, has been preserved and incorporated into the design of PETCO Park, the new baseball-only ballpark of the San Diego Padres baseball team
  • In contrast, almost all the sites that we located here required a lot of imagination to reconstruct in one’s mind because they have crumbled with time, weather and neglect. It is disheartening to see this steady deterioration of a part of our history since once gone it is lost forever.

    Written by Anand Lakshmipathi, volunteer, Transparent Chennai