The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The spirit is lost
The grand columns of Mackinnon Mackenzie; (below) a window inside the building about to be removed. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Clad in sandstone that looks golden when touched by the sun, the Mackinnon Mackenzie Building at 16 Strand Road still gives the impression of being the bastion of business and commerce that it was meant to be when it was constructed in 1927. From the Millennium Park side of the Hooghly, it dominates the skyline of Dalhousie Square with the dome of the old Chartered Bank building peeking behind it.

But now it is only a shadow of a building. If one scrutinises its top floors one can easily see an abundance of greenery on the terrace. Rest assured that is no terrace garden. Way back in 1998, a mysterious fire — sabotage surely cannot be ruled out — had devastated the core of the building and destroyed the huge atrium, which let in the sun, in the middle.

As the months turned into years and the building, which was beset by legal wrangles with tenants, was left to rot, mountains of rubble and glass blocked the huge rooms blackened by the fire. As in the case of the Currency Building in the heart of Dalhousie Square, parasites gradually burst into life from every nook and cranny and abandoned space till the top floors turned into a waist-high jungle of weeds. Clearly nature abhors a vacuum and grabs every inch left unattended.

One thing however was clear. Experts had declared that the Currency Building, although partially demolished, was still strong enough to hold its own. The same could have been said of the Mackinnon Mackenzie building, named after one of the most reputable boxwallah companies. As in the case of its peers Andrew Yule, Balmer Lawrie, James Finlay, Bird & Co, F.W. Heilgers and other British companies of its ilk, Mackinnon Mackenzie existed only in name after the British left and the building remained as a visible and tangible reminder of its past glories.

But as with the Great Eastern Hotel, which is being made over, it has literally turned into a shadow of its former self. One needn’t have X-ray eyes to discover that all that is left of this huge, solid building, which, according to popular lore, was quake-proof, is the shell.

The building from Hooghly. Picture by Soumitra Das

The rest has all been scooped out, and save the solitary window here or rows of columns on the facade, little is left of it. The sky is visible through the openings on the top floors of the massive structures. Anybody with a pair of eyes taking a ride on the ferry can see this. The building has lost its irreplacable character.

It can be taken for granted that when perfectly sound buildings are being “restored” (read demolished and rebuilt) in this city they will be reborn as shopping malls. It happened quite sometime ago with Lord Inchcape’s house in Camac Street, it will happen again with Dunlop House on Free School Street, and the same with Mackinnon Mackenzie.

Those who compare such malls with Selfridge’s in London forget that this landmark has remained that way for nearly a century, something like our Metropolitan Building, which used to be the department store named Whiteway Laidlaw. If only LIC had not been callous enough unnecessarily to prolong its restoration, things would have been quite different.

Anybody who can Google search will find this piece of information on the London store: “Selfridges is a chain of department stores in the United Kingdom. It was founded by American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge who opened a large store in London’s Oxford Street on 15 March, 1909.” So Selfridge’s is almost the same age as Whiteway Laidlaw, which closed down about four decades ago.

As to Selfridge’s glamour, think of walking or driving down potholed Strand Road with its rows of derelict buildings, godowns and pavements taken over by hawkers. The very picture of Calcutta’s hardscrabble life.

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