The colour has returned to their faces. The frail parts of their bodies have been fortified and although they are about a hundred years old, today they look as smart as schoolchildren dressed for a class photograph.
Indeed, a number of cameras have been clicking the Marzban Parsi colony in Agripada and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Apollo Bunder after the two restored structures were given UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage awards recently. The Mumbai buildings were among 10 names chosen out of 47 entries from 16 countries. The recognition intends to encourage heritage conservation, a cause that is often overlooked in the region.
The win is the third in two years for Vikas Dilawari, the conservation architect who led the restoration. The repairs were done over a period of three years each and without inflated budgets. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club was repaired for about Rs 4 crore, while the 10,920-square feet Wadia Building, the most dilapidated structure in Lal Chimney Compound, was fixed for Rs 800 per square foot. The others were refurbished for Rs 200-300 per square foot. Dilawari says the efforts paid off as the property managers agreed with his ideas. "There are people with money, but what we need are supportive patrons," he says.
Marzban colony near Nair Hospital is a set of five low-rise buildings. It is also called Lal Chimney Compound supposedly because a red chimney once stood in the area. Around it are tall and drab commercial or residential structures. Now painted a fun shade of yellow and capped by tiled roofs, the colony stands out pleasantly like pastries in a cold grey refrigerator. Its origin dates back to the late 19th century and it is named after Muncherji Marzban, an executive engineer at the Bombay Municipal Corporation who promoted housing for the poor. It acts as a specimen of community housing, a fast-dwindling concept.
Historian Deepak Rao, who enjoys walking around south Mumbai, says the colony perks up an otherwise dull stretch near Bombay Central. It was built for impoverished Parsis and is different from a chawl as the houses are mostly one-bedroom apartments with bathrooms attached. They have compounds and common corridors. Slipshod adjustments done over the years had buried its old charm. The plaster on wooden banisters had to be removed; carvings on the façade had to be revived and broken shuttered windows needed renovation.
While one of the buildings was in a poor state and needed a full structural revamp, the others had been repaired occasionally and only had to be strengthened. The Garib Zarthostiona Rehethan Fund (GZRF), which runs the colony, had never seriously considered demolition. Some of the impoverished tenants may not have been able to afford the maintenance of redeveloped flats, says Muncherji Cama, president of the trust.
The other winner, the residential chambers of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club premises, first built to accommodate members and visiting associates and now used for club activities, was opened in 1881. The neo-Gothic style stone building was designed by John Adams. As updates were made in the structure, the premises had lost some of its historicity, says Dilawari. So, replicas were carefully created for the loose or missing tiles on the ground floor and stained glass installations were refurbished by experts. The exterior was mended and made waterproof. "Monsoon and the elements had wreaked havoc on the building but it has been returned to its former glory," says Captain Sohrab Kapadia, the new president of the club.
One of the main problems faced during repairs is getting tenants to cooperate. GZRF, which also maintains the Sethna buildings, has refurbished more than 40 colonies. It maintains a few empty flats in each of the complexes to accommodate tenants and minimise the burden during restoration. "Shifting for months together was an inconvenience but the tenants supported us throughout," says Cama, who is also chairman of Bombay Samachar.
Like Sethna, the Lal Chimney buildings too are not on the city's heritage list. "The government should give incentives like tax rebates to charities and private owners for the upkeep of old buildings," notes Cama. "Just including buildings in the list is not enough."