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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 14, november 1-15, 2009
Can Town Hall be restored
to a heritage precinct?
(By A Special Correspondent)

Restoration work is underway at Victoria Public Hall aka Town Hall. Despite the official secrecy and the lack of public consultation in the conservation of the heritage structure, as reported in Madras Musings a couple of issues ago, what is heartening is that the building is receiving official attention. The eviction of hawkers fronting the building has been completed and work has begun on the compound wall. This, therefore, would be a good time to ponder over what needs to be done to make the building come alive, by way of continued usage. If this is not done, there would be no purpose in saving the building other than making it a museum piece.

Can we return the Town Hall to such visual splendour? (Picture: Vintage Vignettes).

The first concerns the garden in which the building stands. Old photographs show VP Hall in all its glory as part of People’s Park. Then there was no compound wall and the building was part of a broad road comprising many other stately buildings, most of which have survived along this stretch of Poonamallee High Road. The present compound wall hides the building completely from public view. It has been reported that the VP Hall will have a transparent compound wall in future. While it is not clear as to what this means, even a wall of railings may be good enough. What is important however is to ensure that the building is not obscured.

The same logic is also applicable for the trees that front the building. Tree planting has never been according to any plan (as is the case in most of our public buildings, including historic ones such as Senate House) and this has resulted in dense foliage completely hiding many a building. The restored Town Hall will need a garden that can highlight its architectural beauty and this may necessitate removal of some of the trees. It would be best to look at the layout of the garden from the building’s visibility point of view and plant trees and shrubs according to such a plan.

Chennai has never had a tradition of providing a viewing space for heritage structures – approaches or grand vistas for buildings that heighten their architectural beauty. Central Station has been a victim of such apathy with a whole lot of hawkers’ shops that fronted it till recently. VP Hall is no different. The western side of the building is blocked by a modern high-rise hotel and the eastern side has numerous makeshift shops in the lane that leads to the Lily Pond Complex. A master plan for VP Hall will have to take these into consideration and a solution be worked out.

How user-friendly will Town Hall be after it is completed? Its future depends entirely on this. While its history and its importance as a venue for performing arts may be good enough for heritage lovers, its sustainability will depend on how much “generation now”, brought up entirely on a diet of fast food and multiplexes, takes to it. Chennai has had at least two instances of splendid restoration work at the end of which both edifices, namely Connemara Public Library and Senate House, have been declared out of bounds for the public. It is highly debatable as to how long lasting such restoration will be, if the buildings are no longer used. If a similar fate is not to befall VP Hall, we will need to debate now on how this building is to be used after its restoration.

Given its heritage status, the building will form a wonderful setting for public events and the staging of plays. Chennai has a healthy theatre culture and the Hall, which has been a venue for several plays in the past, may yet be revived for the same purpose. It may be wise to provide at least two auditoria in the same building, a smaller mini-hall in the ground floor and a larger one in the space already meant for it, on the first floor. The successful restoration and re-use of the Museum Theatre may serve as a guiding factor while planning for VP Hall.

Lastly, if the Hall is to be well used, it is going to need an easy entrance and exit for vehicles. Today there is only one gate on the southern side and, once the building is restored, this will cause a huge bottleneck during events when several cars will come into the place. It may be best to examine the possibility of one more gate on the northern side that will open into the Lily Pond parking lot. It would also be advisable to earmark specific gates for entry and exit. Negotiating for exclusive parking space for VP Hall in the erstwhile prison complex and providing a subway from there into the garden of VP Hall may also be thought of.

If all these ideas are considered during the restoration, we may have a live and vibrant Town Hall with us, a building about which successive generations may feel proud.


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Can Town Hall be...
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