It doesn't deserve to go.
Pushpa Iyengar One of Chennai's oldest colonial buildings, whose original owners probably gave this city its erstwhile name, Madras, is currently being flattened with sledgehammers and drills.
Though structurally sound, the 250-year-old former Government House, commonly known as Admiralty House, is being pulled down to make way for a new Rs 200-crore legislative assembly complex being designed by a German architectural firm.
Five years ago, when the Jayalalitha government announced Queen Mary's College (QMC) would be demolished to make way for a new secretariat complex, M.K. Stalin, heir apparent to DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, stormed police barricades in solidarity with women students in an agitation that saved the 110-year-old QMC for the time being.
Now it is the turn of the DMK government, which projects itself as a champion of culture, to sign the death warrant for a historic building, which will be reduced to a pile of debris by the month's end. Significantly, Stalin is silent this time. Tucked away in the Omandur Ramaswami Reddiar Estate—a complex of 21 government buildings spread over 25 acres—the fact that this regal building was not visible, and therefore evoked no groundswell of public support, may have helped hasten its demise.
In contrast, both the QMC and another heritage landmark which faced demolition, the 1839 police headquarters building, located prominently on the Marina, were saved after conservationists went to court. Fort St George—which currently houses the assembly—was the seat of the British East India Company after the first governor, George Foxcroft, arrived in 1666. But with its buildings damaged in a battle in 1749 with the French, the then Governor Thomas Saunders rented a house belonging to Antonia de Madeiros in 1752.
The de Madeiros family of San Thome were prosperous Portuguese traders, from whom the name Madras is said to have originated. S. Muthiah, director, Chennai Heritage, recounts Admiralty House's history: "On August 28, 1753, the government of Madras bought the house for 3,500 pagodas (Rs 75,000 today) to serve as the governor's garden house. For nearly 200 years, governors used that house, first as a part-time residence and, later, as a permanent one." After Independence, the governor's residence moved to its present location in Guindy. The old Government House—named Admiralty House as it was used by the admiralty courts—became the mlas' hostel.
It later housed the police when the police headquarters building was being renovated in 1993. In fact, the CID continued to function from there till demolition began on April 22 this year. The splendid lime-and-mortar Admiralty House has wood and marble floors, carved wooden staircases and high ceilings. Muthiah, who edits Madras Musings, a fortnightly devoted to the city's heritage and environment, describes it thus: "The flooring boasted some of the highest quality marble. The central hall had fine plasterwork on the ceiling and the hall fronting the verandah had a beautiful false ceiling held with a framework of rosewood.
The ornamental pillars that rose to the ceiling were made of rosewood and carried monograms of officials of the past. At least 10 doorways were in the finest Dravidian style, each one of them 12 ft in height—apparently valued at Rs 8 lakh each." In bringing it down, laments Muthiah, "the government has not only demolished a symbol of the Raj, but also the work of Indian masons, woodcarvers and other artisans."
While the AIADMK government was stopped from demolishing the police headquarters and the QMC because the then CM Jayalalitha announced her plans, the DMK government crept in on Admiralty House stealthily, leaving conservationists little time to act.