Monday, August 17, 2009

Urban decay

Well, how else can you describe what befell this eye-catching building, which once housed consulting rooms for dentists, among other things? It was - is - a very intriguing building, right from the nature of its construction, to its first name, going all the way to its current status. It was designed by a certain J.H.Stephens, who was (had been?) employed by the Madras Public Works Department. Mr. Stephens let is creative powers run amok in a way that would have had his superiors at the Madras PWD raise their collective eyebrows; the design he came up with was a challenge to describe. Every possible shape with ten sides or less appears to have been used in the two wings of the building, which join at a large hall on the northern side; a hall flanked by the two towers in the photo. It was not just shapes, but also styles, with Ottoman, Mughal and Hindu mixing with European classical in a way that was quite attention grabbing.

Maybe attention is what W.E.Smith & Co., whose building it was, wanted. W.E.Smith had come to Madras in 1868 looking to set up a pharma business. Finding competition too intense, he took his business to the Nilgiris, where he was a roaring success, so that by the time he came back to Madras, W.E.Smith & Co., was reputed to be south India's best pharmacists. W.E.Smith & Co., apart from having a grand showroom for their products, also built consulting rooms for doctors and dentists on the Mount Road side, while the rooms on the General Patter's Road side were living quarters for the firm's European assistants. Apart from these mixed uses, the building also had a factory for bottling aerated water, a cafe and a beer bar. I can only imagine that Mr.Smith wanted to give this building a name which was not as common as his own; there does not seem to be any other reason why, when it was inaugurated in 1897, this was called the 'Kardyl Building'.

Over the years, the Kardyl Building changed a few hands; from Smith to Spencer's, who then sold it to Bharat Insurance. Though the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) took over that company in 1956, the name Bharat Insurance Building stuck on. After using the premises for a few years, the LIC thought the space could be put to better use, but the Madras High Court, in August 2006, restrained the LIC from 'demolition or change in character' of the building. Since then, it has remained unoccupied and unlooked-after. Last year, the then Union Finance Minister apparently said he would either use or misuse his powers to save the building; if he did, the results are not evident yet!

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