Nothing saved but face - Metropolitan Building roof still unprotected

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By Staff Reporter
  • Published 4.12.06

By restoring Metropolitan Building after letting it turn into a brick heap with skin like a mangy dog’s the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) could have turned the early 20th century structure into a showpiece of restoration.

After years of procrastination work began on February 2003 with architect Dulal Mukherjee as consultant. The façade of the building that was once Whiteway Laidlaw, the most glamorous department store this side of the Suez, was refurbished.

Yet, just take a look at the once dazzling white façade now turned grey, and the scaffolding of the clock tower — rigged months ago — and one realises that something must be wrong somewhere.

The dome has at last been covered with a metal sheet but only after ages. All the beautiful stained glass windows that were still intact were recently destroyed and replaced with ordinary glass.

And to think that the Metropolitan Museum in New York is currently holding an exhibition of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass house.

If one steps inside, one gradually realises what went wrong. Although work began with the façade, the same attention was not paid to either the interior of the building or the terrace.

The terrace remained unprotected throughout the monsoon. Whenever it poured, all the floors, including the precious wooden stairs, would get flooded. Work on the terrace is yet to be finished and the plumbing remains practically untouched. So water from the third floor bathrooms cascades to the ground floor.

This becomes clear if one looks at the ceilings of the third-floor flats. They are all stained with rising damp. Residents had to move around in their flats with buckets and umbrellas throughout the rainy season.

Conservation architect Nilina Deb Lal, who put together the Intach handbook on the city’s heritage buildings, says: “While the emphasis of restoration projects is mostly on the façade, the real problems are inside. The roof is a must. The façade is important not only for the building to look good but because it is a protective layer. But if plumbing and sanitation and electrical installations are dated, they have to be revamped. Replacing rainwater pipes is very necessary for the health of a building.”

There are no visible gains but it is mandatory.

But the interior of Metropolitan Building is what was neglected. As a matter of fact, it was torn apart. The precious Italian marble had been removed from the floor even before repairs began. The fire sprinkler inside, meant to fight fires, was removed.

The stained glass roof of the atrium had collapsed quite some time ago. Now, there is a huge abyss in the floor which has been barricaded. The corridors around this floor are in a shambles, too. Yet expensive woodwork was replaced although it was not protected from the seeping water.

What’s worse, the balconies, ornamental work and urns, which were restored a few months ago, have already started chipping and cracking. The new material does not hold. Absence of the original design did make restoration a tough job. The portico on the Chowringhee side of the building is being rebuilt. Concrete pillars were erected after it collapsed, but their look is nothing approaching the original granite finish design.

It is true that the contractors who are executing the job had a tough time as no original design of the building exists. Moreover, some tenants did not allow access into their flats. LIC has initiated cases against them. But that does not excuse the LIC of the cavalier manner in which it treats restoration and wastes public money.