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Strand, a picture of tragic grandeur

Calcutta, May 29: The row of four massive warehouses standing along the Hooghly riverfront on Strand Road, once statements of the city’s power and prosperity, had over the years become symbols of utter neglect on the part of the Calcutta Port Trust, that owns them, and the city fathers as well.

Strand Warehouse, the skeleton of which stands at the crossing of Brabourne Road, was the oldest, most ornate and aesthetically pleasing of the four. It was pushed to dereliction by several fires, the last and most devastating of which was on February 14.

Deeper north, there are several other warehouses once owned by Bengali merchants, the most picturesque of which is the celebrated but disintegrating Putul Bari overlooking Sovabazar jetty.

These four warehouses were constructed between 1901 and 1903, Calcutta’s boom time, and were the city’s moorings on the Hooghly. They were the gateway to the city for shippers and when they left, their vessels used to be loaded with shellac, linseed, tea and gunnies.

No other riverine port in the world, save Liverpool’s Albert Dock, could boast such grand warehouses on its waterfront. Whereas Albert Dock, which was closed in 1972, was redeveloped in the 1980s, Strand Warehouse was allowed to rot.

Close to a decade ago, several teams from the UK had visited the warehouses and there was much talk about regenerating them. Grand plans were drawn up to turn them into shopping plazas and tony blocks of flats, but heavily litigated as they are, the talks came to naught.

Like its three other companions, the three-storeyed Strand was an exposed brick building and was divided into five sections. The lucid lines of multiple arches leaping along the upper floors imparted a certain grace to its structure. The end sections were squared in plan, and, here too, the arches progressively increased with each floor.

The prodigious girth and height of Strand Warehouse was delicately ornamented with exquisite floral motifs of plaster and masses of stylish cast iron grilles and lunettes that added a touch of opulence.

These decorative features stood out prominently even after the fire in February when the building was on the verge of collapse. The crowning glory of the building were the finials installed at certain strategic points of the parapet.

Long after the top floors were hollowed out by mysterious fires that would break out periodically, the leaping arches framed against the sky turned Strand Warehouse into a picture of tragic grandeur, quite similar to the Coliseum in Rome.

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