The most frequently photographed feature of Fort St George is the Assembly building. It dominates the Fort’s frontage and is strikingly beautiful. It is, sadly, completely out of bounds for the casual visitor, housing as it does the offices of the Chief Minister, the State Cabinet, the Legislative Assembly and the ministries. Compared to the rest of the Fort, this edifice is of relatively recent provenance, having been constructed in its present shape in1910 and subsequently added to. But its core is very old, almost as old as Fort St George.
Among the first structures to be built in 1640 by Andrew Cogan was what he termed the “Tower in the midst of the Fort”. This was finished before he left Madras in 1643. It housed the civil establishment of the Fort, while the military disposed itself below the curtain walls. According to Dr. Fryer, who left an account of the Fort in 1673, this central tower, a domed edifice rather like a Mughal tomb, was the Governor’s House. Later accounts speak of it as a flat-roofed building and H. D. Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras dismisses the domed depiction as “untrustworthy”.
It appears to have been multi-functional, for it “contained offices, reception rooms, a dining hall, a chapel and accommodation for the Writers.” An earlier write-up, dated January 6, 1664, refers to this building as the ‘Mansion Howse’ and has it as the residence of the Agent (later designated Governor) and the second, third and fourth members of his Council. It also housed a “very beautifull Chappell for Divine Service, and Convenient Lodgings for the Minister, as alsoe a faire dineing-roome and Celler.”
Dr. Fryer does not mention it, but Hiram Bingham, in his biography of Elihu Yale, notes that even a year earlier to Fryer’s description, the building was in need of repair. All sources agree that by 1677 the walls of this building were tottering. Several Governors had added to the structure over the years. The additions had been made without any thought of the foundations and by 1688 Fort House had three floors with the Governor’s Consultation Room on the top, all ready to collapse at short notice.
Action was finally taken in 1693 by Governor Nathaniel Higginson who, like Yale, was born in the colonial America. He was also the first Mayor of Madras. The building was emptied and all its effects transferred to Jearsey House on Charles Street within the Fort. Demolition was completed by April 1694 when orders were given for the construction of a new Fort House “being 110 foot in length and 55 foot in breadth, to be built on the East side of the Fort att 18 foot distance from the Godown Wall and att equall distance from the North and South Walls.”
The new building was ready by September 1695 and, to quote Love, “there exists satisfactory evidence that the middle portion” of the present Secretariat Building dates from this construction of 1694. By the 1750s, this building was referred to as the Great House. Its internal arrangements had remained unchanged for over six decades – the bombproof ground floor had offices, the first floor had the common dining facility referred to as the General Table, and the top floor had the Consultation Room and Governor’s Quarters. In 1752, a storm caused serious damage to the building but it remained structurally sound, unlike its predecessor. Testimony to its strength was further evident when, during the French siege of the 1750s, Fort House was an important part of the successful defence. Officers and troops occupied the lowest floor and the roof was protected by laying bales of woollen cloth on it. A couple of shells did land on the terrace but no damage was sustained.
In the 1780s, with Governors of Madras by then happy to live outside the Fort, the building was appropriated for several other purposes. A minute in 1782 ordered the vacating of all the rooms in the building and decreed that the “Assistants in the two Secretaries Offices” would henceforth use these. This marks the beginning of the Secretariat in this building. In April the same year, extensive alterations were planned, under the supervision of Philip Stowey, Civil Architect. It began, as it invariably does in most heritage structures even today, with some repairs to the Council Chamber. That led to further discoveries of weakness and the budget was revised first to 6,600 and later to 13,916 star pagodas. The work went on for six months and at the end of it, several features that we now recognise in the building were in place.
Chief among these is the verandah on the eastern side and a corresponding one on the west. The latter also had two short wings projecting to the west and two new flights of stairs, also on the western side. The two wings were further extended in 1825 when they projected north and south, bringing the Secretariat building to its present dimensions. By then, the structure was being referred to as Government Office. The building appears to have remained as it was for the next 90 years or so, apart from regular maintenance and repair. It must have been electrified early in the 20th Century for, Mrs. Penny in her book writes that “long after dark the lights in the Secretariat testify to the diligence of the hard-worked Under Secretaries.”
In 1910, a new round of construction began. Madras had had a Legislative Council since 1862 and this had steadily expanded to include public representation of some sort by the early 1900s. A new Council Chamber was required as were offices for Secretarial use. The Secretariat acquired a second floor. A more important change was to the front – for since then it incorporated 32 black Charnockite or Pallavaram Gneiss columns into its façade.
These pillars, as we saw in the account relating to the Sea Gate, once formed an ornamental colonnade from the sea to the Fort. The space between had doubled up as a market place and a processional route. In 1746 the French made away with the pillars and these were returned to Madras in 1762. They were then erected in front of Fort House and the spaces in between were walled in to make a hall for official entertainments. The construction of Goldingham’s splendid Banqueting Hall in 1802 at the instructions of Lord Clive rendered the old building superfluous and it became a godown. In 1910, the then Governor, Sir Arthur Lawley, recommended that the building be dismantled and the best pillars out of the lot be incorporated into the new frontage of the Secretariat. According to Rao Sahib C.S. Srinivasachari’s History of the City of Madras (1939), a plaque to this effect has been let into the wall of the Legislative Council (now Assembly) Chamber.
The building at present has a dual, or even triple, function. To the east is the magnificent Assembly chamber and to its rear are the secretarial areas. The top floor houses the offices of the ministers of the Tamil Nadu Government. It must be remembered that Madras/Tamil Nadu had a bicameral legislature from 1936 to the 1980s. The lower house or the Assembly became more powerful over a period of time and, after peregrinating to various places, eventually came to occupy the chamber of the upper house, or the Council, which by the 1960s was relegated to “a room by the side of the Assembly.” In the 1980s, the Council was done away with and its chamber remains locked up. What is also forgotten is that the classic rear façade of the entire building is completely hidden from public view by, secretariat block that was built to the same dimensions behind it. If you enter this art-deco/modernist building and manage to walk deep into it, you can catch a glimpse of the original rear façade of the Secretariat building. It has survived intact.
What is also surprising is the sheer survival power of the Fort House that Higginson built. It has overcome war, vagaries of weather and a recent attempt at shifting the Secretariat and Assembly to Mount Road and carries on nevertheless. It has within it around 325 years of history and that is a record to be proud of.
This article is a part of a series of 25 stories on Fort St George, to commemorate its 375th year. The earlier ones can be read from the links below: