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Facelift for Dalhousie Square’s First Lady

STANDARD BUILDING FROM CLOSE QUARTERS

The most beautiful old lady of Dalhousie Square — the Standard Life Assurance Building at 32 and 32A BBD Bag — is at long last being given a good scrub to remove the layers of grime, and a lick of paint to reveal her youthful loveliness.

Thanks to the personal initiative of Kanakendu Singha, executive engineer (I), city division, public works department, the 118-year-old building has been saved from decay and ultimate disaster following decades of neglect. Scaffolding has been erected on the eastern side of the exposed brick building, and a good part has already been painted a dark shade of red with touches of cream.

Standard Building, as it is better known, was designed under the supervision of Frederick William Stevens, consulting architect to the insurance company, who had also designed the Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai, which has been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

The construction of this building began in 1894 and it was completed in 1896. Stevens, who died in Mumbai of malaria, was a high priest of the Indian Gothic style but there is no trace of that style in Standard Building. Instead it flaunts some of the most beautiful relief sculpture anywhere.

The building stands opposite Telephone Bhavan, which came up in the 1960s after Dalhousie Institute was demolished and upset the symmetry of the square with Laldighi situated in its midst. A plaque inside the ground floor building on the western side next to the entrance gives the details of the construction but it is too dark there to read it.

Standing at the corner of Red Cross Place and facing Raj Bhavan, Standard Building is noticeable because of the cupola and the weather vane on top of it. As its two addresses suggest, the three-storeyed building has two wings joined by two bridges across Vansittart Row. Kanakendu Singha says earlier he could not gain entry into the building but at the end he did so in July 2013. The ownership of the building is disputed and it is under a receiver.

The roof was leaking and the directorate of youth welfare, which is the tenant of No 32 A, which has the cupola on top, wanted it to be refurbished. This is in the east. The directorate provided the funds for renovating the interiors and for the exterior “the PWD mobilised its own resources,” says Singha. The directorate had released Rs 75 lakh for work on the interiors.

The building may be ground plus three but it is as high as a six-storeyed structure. So it is difficult to repair the weather vane on top of the tower, as was the case with the rotating angel on the Victoria Memorial Hall dome. Fortunately, only the floor has developed cracks and the walls are almost intact. The roof on the eastern side has already been treated with APP membrane to prevent leakage. The western side of the building is almost untouched and is in a poor state.

The eastern section has inside it a huge flat on the second floor. It had not been opened for years, and inside it is fully furnished though under a layer of dust. The walls have wood panelling and inside the rooms are beds, sofas and cupboards and a dressing table of good quality.

An EP record of a popular Rabindrasangeet sung by Hemanta Mukherjee and Lata Mukherjee lies on the platter of a record player. The calendar dates back to 2007. A photograph of a woman in wedding finery hangs on the wall. On a table is a photograph of a middle-aged man. Only the resident is missing. The rooms have gathered dirt over the years but little else could have changed.

The exhaust fumes of thousands of vehicles — cars, buses and innumerable other kinds — thundering past the building during office hours have grimed the surface and eaten into the sandstone of this elegant structure. Parasites have struck roots into the brick and mortar and in the absence of any effort to remove them, they have luxuriated. Young men and boys carved out of sandstone loll and gambol on beds of flowers but their faces are as dark as a chimney sweep’s.

The most gorgeous pieces of sculpture are on the bridges spanning Vansittart Row. In the spandrels of the first-floor arch are the figures of the Grim Reaper carrying a scythe, while on the other is a bare-breasted maiden carrying a flaming torch.

In the pediment above the bridge is depicted the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Similar carvings of the Virgins — albeit in sterling condition — exist in the pediment of the Edinburgh head office of the Standard Life Investments, formerly the head office of the Standard Life Assurance.

The pediment of the Edinburgh building dates back to 1839, although the current building is of later vintage. It can be seen on their website.

The Dalhousie Square pediment is so caked with dirt that it is impossible to make out the details with the naked eye. However, our photographer’s powerful lens could distinguish between the Wise Virgins, who had made provisions for their future, standing upright in the middle, and the Foolish ones, who did not, sitting on both sides begging for help. These figures are badly effaced and the one standing right at the centre is headless. The soot has blotted out the inscriptions.

Singha says the PWD has a skilled but elderly artisan who can take care of this but it would be risky for a man of his age to work at that level even on a platform. Moreover, it would need an artist with a heightened aesthetic sense to reveal the beauty of the sculpture. The stonework, including the statues, will be given a caustic soda wash and it would be given a chemical coat to preserve it for at least a decade.

The ground floor of the western wing is occupied by the Calcutta Municipal Water Sanitation Authority (CMWSA), while till a few years ago, the CBI cell of the Calcutta Telephones was a tenant of the third.

They left about five years ago. The CMWSA office has a wealth of the most beautiful cast iron beams and columns supporting the gallery around the sprawling central hall. The lift does not work. The iron staircase is sturdy but is in need of repairs at places. The staircase is cobwebby and could do with a clean-up. Some louvres are missing from the windows. Even these will be replaced.

Singha says this will be a tougher side to handle and the CMWSA and the BSNL will be requested to take care of the interior. The PWD will take care of the façade.