Armenian Street has several interesting buildings to its credit. Some are historical, while others demand attention for being significant works of architecture. One of the few that has both claims to fame is the Oriental Insurance Building.
The eponymous company that owned the property prior to its nationalisation came into existence on May 5, 1874 as the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company Limited in Bombay. Its founding fathers were famous men of that city – Cumroodeen Tyabji, jp, Member of the Bombay Corporation and Solicitor was the Chairman; the other Directors were R N Khote, jp, Merchant and Member of the Bombay Corporation; Jehangir Rustomjee Mody, Merchant, and (later Sir); and Pherozeshah M Mehta, Bar-at-Law and later Chairman of the Bombay Municipal Corporation.
The Oriental fared very well in the first decade of its life and kept the pace going thereafter. In Madras, the company operated through its Managing Agents, McDowell & Co, whose handsome offices on Second Line Beach have long since been demolished. By the turn of the century, Oriental decided to have its own branch in Madras, and this came into existence in McDowell’s premises on April 1, 1901. It was the first regional office of the company. By 1906, business had grown in Madras Presidency and the firm decided to move into its own premises. A suitable site with an existing building was identified at the intersection of Errabalu Chetty and Armenian Streets and the operations shifted there.
The Company decided to build a new edifice on the site in 1935 and the task of designing it was entrusted to the firm of L M Chitale. What emerged thanks to his conception and care came to be rightfully known as the first building in the city to follow ‘modern Indian architecture’. Structurally, it was the first building in the city to be entirely of reinforced concrete with floors, beams, columns and foundation using this medium and the filling in between being done in brick work and cement mortar. It was also the first planned six-storeyed building in the city.
That was an era of edifices with corner entrances. The Law College had shown the way at least three decades earlier. Later, Sir Edwin Lutyens had put this to dramatic effect in New Delhi’s circuses, especially at Princes’ Place near the Government House where Hyderabad and Baroda Houses had corner entrances along a circular periphery while opening out into the rear in a butterfly pattern. Oriental Building on Armenian Street followed in the same tradition with a dramatic corner entrance and a central tower, thereby allowing for extensive frontage along two streets. In an article written on the occasion of the inauguration of the building in 1936, Chitale was to hope that the other three corners of the intersection would soon have complementary structures thereby making way for a circus, but that was sadly not to be.
An interesting feature of the building is its sunken basement, designed exclusively to house a safe deposit vault. The first of its kind in Madras and the biggest in South India, this came to be occupied by the Kothari-promoted Madras Safe Deposit Co Ltd. In its time, the vault was designed to withstand any form of attack – burglars, fire, flood, earthquake and air raids. The basement was to consume a significant part of the overall concrete usage of 1000 tonnes. Two doors, each weighing six tonnes and specially made by Godrej, led to the vault. Each floor above had an entrance hall with access both by stairs and electric lift. The top-most floor was designed as servants’ quarters, while the ground floor had a commodious garage, accessed from the north.
The entire structure was noted for its use of materials largely sourced from within India, the flooring in particular being a combination of mosaic and marble. The steel doors and windows, an essential feature of the art-deco style then making its way were fabricated at the historic Beehive Foundry on Broadway, a firm that is still functioning. The Oriental Insurance Building is not as well maintained as it ought to be, but it still catches the eye.
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