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Sunday , April 4 , 2010
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Fire-prone blocks

Old buildings need care all the time, not only when disaster strikes. In the second part of the series, Metro on Sunday takes a look at a few more vulnerable structures in the city

First-time visitors to Calcutta are surprised by the vast number of ancient buildings that have survived in Calcutta, thanks to the snail’s pace at which things move in this city. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) has included only a limited number of these buildings on its so-called heritage list, and the wisdom of this decision has often been questioned in various quarters. However, inclusion does not guarantee either their safety or proper upkeep. Heritage buildings are as neglected and as vulnerable to fires and developers as any other. Neither the state government’s heritage commission nor the CMC’s heritage committee has ever raised a finger to protect them. The heritage list simply exists in the CMC’s rule books. It has no justification otherwise.

Old buildings outside the heritage list are in the same boat as those on it. Like Angkor Vat, these structures are strangulated by vegetation — and also electrical cables, often the source of fires that destroy them. Innumerable mobile phone towers on terraces in densely populated areas have added fuel to the fire — not just in the metaphorical sense, as the blaze in Wool House opposite Sacred Heart church in Dharmatalla a few months ago proved. But what else can one expect in a city where the Firpo’s market, partially destroyed in a fire, was allowed to be reconstructed, although the structure was not stable? It hums with activity now.

In the past one month or so, a fire first destroyed the spectacular Strand warehouse. No life was lost then. The devastation of Stephen Court has not been pushed into oblivion yet. The authorities concerned seem to have shaken off their habitual stupor. They have picked out certain buildings that are apparently more fire-prone than the rest, although there is no logic to this. All old buildings are like gun powder kegs. That is, however, no justification for either demolishing or destroying them. They need care and attention all the year round — not only when disaster strikes — and the onus is not only on landlords but on tenants as well.

But the authorities are known for their knee-jerk reaction. A few old buildings that need special care:

New Asiatic Mansion
Middleton Row

At 11 Middleton Row, almost opposite Stephen Court, this LIC-owned building looks lovely from outside. It has been painted recently after several decades. That does not take away from the fact that it witnessed a fire a little more than a month ago. It was an electrical fire that started on the ground floor, and within minutes smoke and flames had engulfed all five floors. LIC officers live on top floors. A chemical fire extinguisher was brought from a neighbouring restaurant to put it out. As usual, both police and the firemen were ineffectual. The spiral staircase behind the building had been dismantled long ago. The only escape route is the staircase. The lift shakes violently. Tenants have sealed the wide and open balconies to use as rooms.



Humayun Court
Lindsay Street

Once it housed Lighthouse cinema, now the ground floor is a department store. The building on Lindsay Street facing Sreeram Arcade is as tall as it is broad and has no windows. All openings are blocked with glass and concrete. Air-conditioners buzz near the entrance used both as storage space and a dump. The top floors are a maze of shops and corridors. Eateries abound on the ground floor. A major fire in 2003 had razed two shops, Nu York being one of them. Recently a part of the parapet collapsed, injuring one person.

Harrington Mansions
Ho Chi Minh Sarani

Why this gracious but shabby old building opposite the US consulate was never included in the CMC heritage list remains a mystery. It has four floors, covers 1.20 lakh sq ft and has three wings. It used to have a garden between the two parallel wings that has been turned into a car park.

The rear of the building was used as a car park but a building was constructed there a few years ago. Another structure has come up in front, facing Harrington Street, renamed Ho Chi Minh Sarani. Now even the mandatory open space has been gobbled up. So fire tenders would find it impossible to enter. Water is scarce. Earlier the ground-floor flats opened on to the garden, and each flat had access to the roof via spiral staircases. These were removed 15-20 years ago.



Metropolitan Building
Dorina crossing

Another LIC-owned showpiece on Chowringhee next to Metro cinema. Once the Whiteaway Laidlaw building, its ground floors are occupied by Big Bazaar today. It is so large that when one section is being painted, another section whitewashed earlier becomes sooty. During monsoons, water flows in torrents down the two grand wooden staircases, but water supply is otherwise erratic. The electrical meters were never regularised in all the residential flats and offices. There is no space for parking the cars of residents.

Palace Court
Kyd Street

Belongs to Al Haj Amir Hasan Properties Ltd and is being repaired after years of neglect. This Kyd Street building had six cast iron fire escapes in its rear reaching the terrace. These could be accessed through the kitchen and each back landing had an ornamented railing. But the landlord was so hard up that the stairs were dismantled and sold off. Now there are just bare platforms instead.

Chowringhee Mansion
Park Street-Chowringhee crossing


At the corner of Park Street, it was spectacular before the flyover disfigured Chowringhee. This building belongs to Al Haj Amir Hasan Properties Ltd, too, but unlike its neighbour, it is spic and span. It is a massive three-storeyed building with four blocks.

Few of the flats are residential now. Most of them are occupied by computer “academies” that have their own batteries as a standby during frequent power cuts. The electrical wiring seems to be in order, but the meters are kept under lock and key. The billboards that deface it are perhaps too heavy for a masonry structure. The mansard roofs bristle with mobile phone towers.


Kanak Buildings

Once it housed the Army & Navy Store, and this red pedimented building is one of the smartest in Chowringhee. But appearances can be deceptive and the rear side walls are covered with air-conditioners. The terrace has an office block that could never have been part of the original structure.

Karnani Estate
AJC Bose Road-Shakespeare Sarani crossing

It was originally the barracks of the Marines during World War II. Two hundred flats line the corridors on all ground plus five floors. A hundred of these flats are residential. Most windows are blocked with iron grilles for security.

Sunflower Guest House
Royd Street

7 Royd Street has beautiful wooden staircases and an equally beautiful lift. But look carefully, and one discovers that the electrical wires are too close to the staircase. A floor has been added to this ground plus four floor building. The new floor is out of bounds for the tenants. The three fire escapes have been dismantled.

Mercantile Building
Lalbazar Street

Opposite the Lalbazar police headquarters, this is notorious for its fires — twice in the last six years. The two entrances and upper floors are still covered with soot. An abundance of plywood partitions makes it even more risky. Yet it has a famous sweet shop and the jewellery shop of Benud Behari Dutt on the ground floor.



Eko Diagnostic and Imaging Centre
Chowringhee Road

At 54 Chowringhee Road, the rooms are huge and have lofty ceilings. But most of them have been divided into cubicles with false ceilings. Edward Court, next to it, is overshadowed by a hotel facing Nehru Children’s Museum that leaves little space for fire-tenders to enter the maze. Hundreds of patients from all over the city and the state come to Eko daily for medical tests, but with the abundance of air-conditioners and electricity cables, wooden staircases and corridors, is it really safe for the ailing?

42/1 Strand Road

Tapuriah House between MG Road and Brabourne Road is adjacent to the flyover. This is one of the houses singled out as being fire-prone. It has a tiny square courtyard and the verandahs on the upper storeys are blocked with glass and wood.

135 Canning Street

Commercial House is close to the Andrew Yule building. Another “fire-prone” building. It must have been magnificent once, but now most of its plaster is gone. The pavements around it are all encroached upon.

138 Canning Street

At the crossing of Strand Road is a dusty red building. The tiny passages for ingress lead to narrow staircases. It has been labelled “fire-prone” and very vulnerable.





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