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Stone(re)work

The historic Rajabai Tower of Mumbai University will finally get the thorough restoration it needs. A look at how the architects have identified the problems, and what they will do

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As any old and lovely building ought to, Rajabai Clock Tower of Mumbai University comes with an amusing story. Built between 1869 and 1878 to a design by English architect , it was for a time the tallest building in Bombay at 280 ft. The story goes that the millionaire who paid for it, a Jain businessman named with interests in cotton, bullion and the then-new stock exchange, insisted that the tower be named for his mother. A devout woman, but blind, the tower’s bells reminded her each evening to eat dinner before sunset, as prescribed by her religion. This, to her son, was worth the Rs 2 lakh he donated.

As with many of Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic public buildings, the Rajabai Tower has stood intact, despite minimal caretaking, for close to a century and a half. It long outlasted Roychand’s first fortune, which he lost in the Backbay reclamation scheme. For some time, however, the University as well as Mumbai’s conservation community have been aware that the tower, as well as the library building out of which it rises, needed attention.

In 2006 funds were raised for restoration work, but the Rs 2.6 crore that IT major was offering turned out to be insufficient — and the process of getting permission to do major repairs on a Grade I monument, difficult.

In January 2012, Mumbai University announced that TCS had agreed to donate Rs 4.2 crore to meet the revised cost of restoration, and that architects Somaya & Kalappa Consultants (S&K) had been chosen to lead the project. S&K has worked on various restoration projects, most prominently in 2003. The firm has recently submitted its plan for the Rajabai Tower. “The actual work will start after the monsoon,” says Homeyar Goiporia, the senior architect handling the project.

The plan, whose details are not yet public, will include a thorough cleaning of the façade and repair or replacement of damaged exterior stone, structural strengthening, stopping of water seepage, removal of plants and “biological growth” (like moss), refurbishment of the Burma teak fittings in the library, provision of services like wiring and air-conditioning where they are needed, as well as facilities to help preserve rare books in the library’s collection.

S&K’s plan is based on a “conditional mapping”. Goiporia explains: “We have a visual survey, where we map out the ficus [plant] growth, efflorescence and stains and deterioration of structural members. There is [also] a structural report, with tests under the guidance of the structural consultant. Key areas are opened up and inspected,” such as trusses and load-bearing walls.

From past work on the St Thomas Cathedral, Goiporia says the firm learned about “the types of stone and how they deteriorate” and how this varies according to the environment of each building. In the case of the Rajabai Tower, made of Malad and Porbandar stone, he says that the chief threat is pollution rather than Mumbai’s salty sea air. “When you have the first showers, it brings the pollutants down and they get embedded in the stone.”

Work will start right after the monsoon and, depending on when all permissions are received, finish within 12-18 months.

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