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Travel to Peninsular India: Chennai / Madras 2: British Public Buildings

"The city presents a disappointing appearance, and possesses not a single handsome street.... The site is so low that it is difficult to realize that behind the first line of buildings lies one of the largest cities in Asia." That's the verdict of Maclean's Manual (1885). Even in his day, however, there were plenty of buildings with pretensions to grandeur--and a couple that achieved it.  Thank Lord Napier of Magdala and his architect, Robert Fellowes Chisholm (1840-1915).  Together they blended local and Western ideas into an Indo-Saracenic style far from the classicism of Calcutta or the Gothic delights of Bombay.

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Fort St. George, founded in 1639, was a true and necessary fortress. Here, the east side, facing the sea.

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Behind the walls there is still a military and government community.

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Inside is also the secretariat. These pictures came from the 1990s, when photography was allowed.

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Close by, there's this rather mysterious canopy. Once, however, it held a statue of Cornwallis.

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He's been moved to a nearby museum, where he remains larger than life both in tonnage and arrogance. He served as governor-general and commander in chief for the East India Company from 1786 and 1794; he returned in 1805 but died the same year of fever.

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A more recent and not quite so celestial ruler: Lord Willingdon, a governor of Madras and then viceroy of India.

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Outside the fort, and on an island in the murky Cooum River, there's a statue of one of the real giants of imperial administration.  Thomas Munro (1761-1827) instituted direct property tax collection on cultivators in much of South India--and in the process released them from something akin to slavery. His revenue system was a break with the system of tax farmers or zamindarsintroduced to North India by Cornwallis. Like Cornwallis, Munro died while on tour.

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Different angle, for the inscription. The sculptor was Francis Chantrey (1781-1841), one of the most eminent British sculptors of the 19th century.

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Stacked awkwardly, the Old Government House still houses government offices.

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Adjoining it, Rajaji Hall, formerly the Banqueting Hall, opened in 1802 to commemorate Clive's victory at Seringapatnam (1799), where Tipu Sultan was killed. The color is presumably a recent selection, made without consulting Martha Stewart.  The wrap-around arcade is a later addition, too, and it nearly succeeds in shrouding the Parthenon-lookalike behind it.

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The National Art Gallery, originally the Empress Victoria Memorial Hall and Technical institute, was completed in 1909 and is reminiscent of, though not a close copy, of the Buland Darwaza, or "lofty gateway" at Fatehpur Sikri. The stone is an easy-to-carve pink sandstone from Tada, about 40 miles to the north.

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Henry Irwin was the architect. Despite the elegant stonework, the stone roof leaks and has corroded the steel framework holding the building up. The building is closed.

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Other kinds of maintenance are delayed, too, but the fatuous chhatris (the stone umbrellas that drove Edwin Lutyens wild) seem imperturble and indestructible.

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Another angle.

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On the same property along Pantheon Road is the Connemara Library and its attached theater, also by Irwin.

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The library received surplus books from the India Office, and the theater put on classical drams. They fell out of favor and the theater became disused. The government acquired it in 1830 and added the arcaded rotunda in 1854. It still seems little used, but maybe the visit was on an off day.

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The High Court building opened in 1892 and designed J.W. Brassington and Henry Irwin.  (Irwin had a major hand in Viceregal Lodge in Simla, too.) The tower on the right served as the city's lighthouse for many years, though it is now superceded.

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One of the towers, photographed in the days when cameras didn't trigger the wrath of security forces.

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Security has been greatly tightened since this photo was taken in the 1990s. Now, guided tours can be arranged, but photos are strictly prohibited.

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Long ago, on a weekend morning, the place was open, unguarded, and without a soul save the judges on the walls.

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Adjoining the courts is the Madras Law College, now the Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College.

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Entrance detail. This work, too is by Henry Irwin.

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This tower supported an earlier lighthouse, in operation until 1894.

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The base of that lighthouse column.

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Another Indo-Saracenic masterpiece, the Senate House of the University of Madras. (The university has stuck with its old name, as has the University of Calcutta and such diverse organizations as the Bombay Stock Exchance.)

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It looks a lot like the High Court but is a decade earlier. It opened in 1879 to a design by Robert Fellowes Chisholm.

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The arcade.

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Detail of the columns.

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Dereliction only becomes evident if you poke your head through a broken window and look inside.

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Several notches down the grandeur scale: the Post and Telegraph Office, 1884. The architect was still Robert Chisholm. If the tower looks brutal, that's because its square pyramidal cap was lost to a storm about 1950.

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The Ripon Building or city hall opened in 1913. It's named for the viceroy of the time, who believed that self-government wasn't a bad thing. Remembered as the father of self-government in India, there was little mourning among the British when he left India. Kipling in particular wrote some unkind words.

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Name change!

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Heavy-duty renovations in 2013, occasioned perhaps by the general upheaval accompanying construction of the city's new subway system. The building may yet become the "vision in white" intended by its architect, George Steel Travers (G.S.T.) Harris. Harris was an consulting architect working for India's Public Works Department, and before arriving in Madras in 1896 he had spent eight years in Gwalior, whose Jai Vilas Palace might just have stuck with him.

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The Victoria Public Hall, from 1887, adjoins the Ripon Building and was designed by Robert Chisholm in a much more European mood than his Victoria Memorial Hall of 1909. The building had been closed for decades before renovation work began in 2009. That work included the demolition of dozens of shops that had encroached on the property.

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Simple elegance. The engineers of the public works departments of India usually built with solidity in mind, not grace. Here's an exception: a floral display in ironwork over the printing office.


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