The past few years have seen a spate of writings on heritage, accompanied by a lot of media attention. This has naturally resulted in a huge amount of interest concerning old buildings, especially among the reading public, though this has admittedly not resulted in much action on the ground. It has, of course, created an enormous dislike among the bureaucracy about what it terms ‘heritage activism’. That body of officials would be most happy if there was no opposition to the complete demolition of all heritage structures, to facilitate their replacement with modern highrise. Unfortunately, this hostility is only enhanced by those who, even if in a well-meaning fashion, brand any reasonably old structure as heritage and begin questioning its removal. This makes any heritage activity appear obstructionist. The latest in this series is a newspaper article that mourns the proposed pulling down of the Esplanade police station.
A careful reading between the lines would reveal that the structure in question was built only in 1961. It is a modern PWD building that replaced an earlier structure even then. It is this 54-year-old structure that the Government proposes to replace with a modern building. What is the heritage value of the existing structure? None probably. And whatever there was earlier probably vanished with the demolition in 1961.
What cannot be denied, however, is that a police station has existed in the area since 1856. This needs to be commemorated. The Tamil Nadu Police has in the past displayed a sense of history – it has not only preserved its headquarters by the beach, it has also retained the old bungalow in Egmore that served as the Police Commissioner’s Office even after a multi-storeyed building came up alongside for the same. It is to be hoped that when it constructs a new police station at the Esplanade, the department will put up a plaque commemorating the history of the place. That would be more than sufficient.
While on the subject of new buildings for old, it must be pointed out that the Police has a chequered history when it comes to their stations. The one at Flower Bazaar made way for a tasteless piece of modernity. The Mount Road station was demolished but replaced by a new structure that vaguely recalls the architecture of the old Spencer’s showroom. The Grame’s Road station was retained in full, as there was sufficient space to the rear, where a new building has come up. The most fortunate among all of them is the Triplicane Station on Wallajah Road. This heritage structure, once the langar-khana of the Nawabs of Arcot, has been splendidly restored, ironically when all heritage buildings surrounding it – Government House, Cooum House, the bandmaster’s house, Gandhi Illam and Kalaivanar Arangam – were all demolished!
Hanging fire is the fate of the Royapettah station which was also slated for demolition but has not yet gone under. Also facing an uncertain future is the Harbour station. Both these buildings are undoubtedly heritage structures that date to over a hundred years. They certainly need to be preserved. If the Police needs to expand its activities in these two stations, it would be better off looking for new buildings in the surrounding areas rather than demolish these two to make way for highrise. While the Royapettah station is in use, the Harbour one is at great risk. It has been cordoned off and is now devoid of maintenance for over five years. The media would be better off highlighting the plight of these buildings rather than raising a hue and cry over structures that are of dubious heritage value at best.