One of the most handsome edifices on NSC Bose (formerly China Bazaar/Esplanade) Road is the National Insurance Building. Built in 1938 in the classic art deco style, it is one of the earliest structures of that genre in the city, its construction being more or less simultaneous with that of new (and present) Dare House further down the road. It also holds significance for being the first art deco building of the city to be designed by an Indian – L. M. Chitale.
The property itself is much older, for it forms half of what used to be the Esplanade branch of Spencer & Co, the other half still surviving in its original form and now home to a popular eatery. From the latter we can gauge that what stood in the place of the National Insurance Building was an Indo-Saracenic structure.
Spencer’s had a presence in North Madras since 1894, the first outlet being on First Line Beach and going by the name of the Beach Branch. This in 1906 moved to 362 China Bazaar Road, which was a property of Eugene Oakshott, the Spencer Chairman of the time. The shift was evidently quite an event, for it was reported in The Madras Mail, the newspaper that would eventually come to be owned by Oakshott’s son-in-law E.O. Robinson, a later chairman of Spencer’s (and later Amalgamations). This is what The Mail had to say:
Messrs Spencer and Co’s George Town Branch was yesterday removed (from near the Customs House) to the fine new premises recently built on the Esplanade, opposite the Law Courts. The building consists of two storeys. The main show room downstairs is after the model of the large show room in the Mount Road premises of the firm. The reserved stock is kept upstairs, where there is also a storeroom. The new building is in a very convenient and accessible part of the town.
In 1908, Spencer’s bought the property from Oakshott for Rs 65,000. The branch did well till the 1930s when the Great Depression necessitated changes. Under Chairman L. C. Nicholson, Spencer’s was to embark on cost cutting and improving liquidity. The first to be axed was the Esplanade building, which was sold to the National Insurance Company Limited of Calcutta for Rs. 2 lakh in 1933.
The new owner, one of the largest insurance firms of that time in India, moved into one wing of the building, allowing Spencer’s to rent the other. But in 1938, it was time to remodel at least a part of the edifice in keeping with the new style that found favour in particular with insurance firms, hotels and cinema theatres. The company chose L. M. Chitale for the task. His life and that of his eponymous firm has been covered in detail in Madras Musings some time back.
Under Chitale’s hand, the new-look four storey-building emerged with the first two floors still retaining their Madras terrace and the two new floors being roofed with cement concrete, again a first or at least an early instance for the city. Interestingly, Spencer’s was to move into the new building shortly after its construction. The National Insurance Company became a part of the General Insurance Corporation (GIC) of India in 1956 and with that the latter firm became the owner of the property. It is still put to good use and is maintained fairly well though the clutter of signboards on it detracts considerably from its architecture. Strangely, what was once a lovely red and cream coloured façade was a few years ago painted a dull blue and it remains so till date.
You may want to read about other forgotten (and some lost) landmarks of the city: