The recent rains did not wreak as much havoc on heritage buildings as we feared. The roofless Bharat Insurance Building and Gokhale Hall (both declared structurally weak over a decade ago) are still standing and may they continue to remain till their owners see the light and begin restoration activities. But the iconic India Silk House building on Anna Salai/Mount Road was not so lucky. A suspected electric short circuit caused a fire that left a large part of its interior damaged. This incident, the latest in several electricity-caused conflagrations in our city, has robbed us of another piece of history.
For the record, the building, officially known as Lawley Hall, belongs to the Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam (AHI) Trust. Constructed in the first years of the last century, it was meant to be a hostel and training centre for indigent Muslim children. Built in the North Indian style with chattries and named after the then Governor, Sir Arthur Lawley, the building has had the honour of hosting a lecture by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915. The Trust moved elsewhere in the 1930s and the structure was leased to several commercial entities. India Coffee House was on the first floor for several decades, but the one surviving occupant from early times is India Silk House and the edifice is synonymous with this retailer of garments. The building is listed as being in Grade 2 A category according to the ruling of the High Court of Madras, thereby making it a structure of local importance with no changes possible on its façade, though its interiors can undergo modifications.
Given Chennai’s history of heritage buildings catching fire (see below), the administration has had ample data to analyse and come up with fire safety codes for heritage structures so that more of these do not fall prey.
But that has not happened. Most of these buildings have immense quantities of dry and seasoned timber, which is susceptible to catching fire especially when it exists in close proximity to old wiring. We are not entirely certain about the age of the electric cables in Lawley Hall but anyone who has passed by it can vouch for the fact that the building itself has been shoddily maintained – ugly signage that covers the front façade, a whole lot of fabric stored in the upper floor, and plenty of wires hanging loose. If this is not a recipe for a fire, what else is?
This is where we would have expected the Heritage Conservation Committee of the CMDA to be more proactive. With so many old buildings being burnt down, was it not its task to visit other prominent edifices, see for itself their condition and then advise the owners of what they needed to get done to prevent any accidents from happening? But the Committee has long remained somnambulant. Moreover, there are doubts about its very existence, the State Government having passed in 2012 a heritage bill that calls for the establishment of a new Heritage Conservation Committee which, incidentally, is of identical composition as the earlier one. The trouble however is that nobody has got around to constituting the second committee and the first one is uncertain about its legal status! In such a scenario, what further can be expected other than more and more buildings falling down or catching fire?
The AHI, which is the owner of the India Silk House building is yet to release a statement on what it proposes to do by way of action. It is to be hoped that a sensitive restoration will be embarked upon.
This is a list of heritage buildings consumed by fire in Madras:
Spencer’s Building – 1983
Victory Building (Whiteway and Laidlaw, later Swadesamitran) – 1984
Moore Market – 1985
D’Angelis (later Bosotto) – 1986
Madras GPO – 2000
The Lodge, Government Estate (later Gandhi Illam) – 2006
Bombay Mutual Building – 2012
State Bank of India on First Line Beach – 2014