Two years ago the heritage-lovers of Chennai began to worry about Metro Rail’s potential threat to the heritage buildings of the city. The Rs 14,000 crore, 45 km underground and elevated urban rail project, begun in 2007-2008 (with the first line due to begin testing in December 2013), they realised, would run close to some fine old places.
On the Mount Road stretch, the sites affected would include Simpson and Company (started 1840, a pioneer in manufacturing railway coaches, cars, buses and other vehicles), The Mail (home of an evening news daily), P Orr & Sons, Poompuhar (a handicrafts retailer), India Silk House, Higginbotham’s (said to be India’s oldest surviving bookshop, since 1904), Christ Church, Addisons (a manufacturing company), Bharat Insurance Building, Electric Theatre, Madrasa-i-Azam, Quaid-e-Milleth College for Women, Dargah Hazrath Syed Moosa Shah Quadiri, Gove Building and Thousand Lights Mosque.
On the Poonamallee High Road line, the Metro Rail would encounter Memorial Hall, the Southern Railway headquarters (1921), General Hospital, Madras Medical College, Chennai Central station and Ripon Building (1913, now home to the Chennai Corporation), among others.
“We really worried about those heritage buildings,” says S Suresh, state convenor of the Tamil Nadu Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), a heritage-focused NGO. “We had several discussions with the Metro Rail Authority.” Chennai Metro Rail jumped into action. It took awareness measures, shared details of each kilometre of the lines and discussed measures to protect heritage buildings.
“They addressed each of our apprehensions case by case,” says Suresh. “They brought in experts who explained how they would deal with vibrations and tunnelling without harming buildings nearby.” The lines will pass close to several heritage buildings, but will not impact the structures, he says. “Metro is a necessity for the public and there has to be some sacrifices made for the benefit of large number of people.”
Metro Rail took some of the land in front of Ripon Building and Memorial Hall (1860, dedicated to the European dead of 1857). While the buildings themselves are not touched, their beauty will be affected, say heritage-lovers.
“We are strictly going by the regulations and instructions of the Chennai Metropolitan Develop-ment Authority [CMDA] and the heritage consultative committee under them, and we don’t see any issues at present,” responds S Krishnamoorthy, chief general manager (public relations), Chennai Metro Rail Ltd.
Some heritage-lovers under the banner of Intach approached the Madras High Court to stop the demolition of the rear portion of the P Orr & Sons building, commissioned by Scottish watch-maker Peter Orr in 1879 (its architect was Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who also did the Senate Hall, Victoria Public Hall and Chennai Central station). The building, built in the Indo-Saracenic style and with the clock in its clock tower still ticking away, is now the company’s watch showroom; originally it was used as a showroom for hunting weapons.
A PIL filed in the Madras High Court sought to stop demolition of any part of the building, including the workshop at the rear. Metro Rail, however, argued that the portion selected for demolition was not a heritage structure, and that only the front portion housing the showroom was of Grade-I heritage status. The petition, on the other hand, claimed that the rear portion was also over a century old.
The High Court, it was reported, decided that it could not find fault with the authorities’ decision to pull down a non-heritage section of the building. It imposed a cost of Rs 5 lakh on the petitioner. The Supreme Court upheld the decision, though it reduced the cost from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 50,000.
While some heritage-lovers are unhappy over the loss of the rear portion of P Orr & Sons, demolished in April this year, Intach’s Suresh agrees that the rear portion was not a heritage structure.
Will all these buildings remain safe, and Metro Rail’s mitigation measures work? Only time will tell. Chennai’s heritage-lovers are keeping a close watch.