A Grand old story of garden houses

Garden Houses in the city hold many a secret tale of the colonial rule and the prevailing forms of architecture, discovers Kannalmozhi Kabilan

Published: 17th April 2021 05:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th April 2021 05:49 AM   |  A+A-

The old building of CSI Higher Secondary School for the Deaf in Santhome | Debadatta Mallick

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Picturesque Palladian-style bungalows, long Doric pillars (often paired) holding up deep-seated verandahs; two- or three-storeyed brick-lime mortar creations with tall windows and looming archways; and of course, huge tracts of land that were carefully groomed into noteworthy gardens. Nestled into the concrete structures of the city, in the unassuming neighbourhoods of Royapettah or St Thomas Mount or Pallavaram, you might stumble across this centuries-old heritage of colonial rule the Garden Houses of yore. While little of their casual, lived-in grandeur remains in these walls, they are not without stories of architectural inspirations, the British Raj’s expanding empire, trade and administration and more. If you know who to ask, that is.

David J Praveen, an engineer by trade and history buff and research enthusiast by passion, suggests that if we were to just follow the trail of garden houses from Egmore to Pallavaram, it’d paint quite a picture of the British’s growth in this part of their ‘empire’. It all began with a healthy dose of aspiration. “Britishers who came here did not come from much wealth. Even the officers and captains were of low social status in their country. They didn’t have many expectations when they landed on the Coromandel Coast. It was when they chanced upon the palaces and the opulent lifestyle of the last of the Madurai Nayaks that they desired to create such a life for themselves here,” he narrates.

Origin story
As much the British went about raising these huge houses for nearly 300 years, the concept can be traced back to the Portuguese of the early 1700s, points out David. While the ones left standing are the work of the Britishers in the late 18th century and a significant period of the 19th century, we only have a close approximation of the garden houses created by the Portuguese. “It would have looked much like the house of Ananda Ranga Pillai, a dubash who was in service of the French East India Company, in Puducherry; the house remains. The bungalow’s ground floor has been built in regional style, while the first floor has French architecture in place. This was the style in place for the Portuguese and the early Britishers. The garden houses from just 100-odd years ago were distinctly Roman in terms of form and structure,” he explains.

Lushington Gardens, Saidapet

Every historic source and picture available gives plenty of pointers to the materials used in the construction, says Ashmitha Athreya, architect and head of operations of Madras Inherited, a heritage conversation and management effort. “They would have the traditional Madras terrace roof, brick and lime mortar, red oxide flooring and wooden shutters. In Luz House, specifically, you’ll find the doorknobs to be in glass. The materials and the construction techniques used were better responsive to the climate back then. The Britishers knew that Madras being a city with seas, there would be a lot of heat. So they ensure that minimal heat gets inside the building. That’s why you’ll notice there is always a buffer space either in the form of a verandah or balcony — before you get to the living space,” she details.

In search of cooler pastures
The trajectory of the British occupiers’ movement also points to a search for cooler climes, among other things. The first of the British garden houses, naturally, showed up around Fort St George, given that was the area of occupation. Access dictated the decision to put down roots in what is now Egmore, Royapettah and Santhome. “But, they couldn’t put up with the heat, especially during the summer. They found Guindy and St Thomas Mount to be much cooler. It was lack of access that kept them from getting to these places sooner.

At that point, there was still no bridge over the Adyar river. So, people were able to travel up to Saidapet. To cross the river, they would have to walk or ride along the length of the river until they reach a point where it’s small enough to navigate. That point used to be, approximately, where the Malar Hospital region is right now,” David recounts. It wasn’t till the Marmalong Bridge (more of a causeway) came along that Guindy and other parts of the Presidency became viable options. The places they moved to next, while having been important centres of administration for centuries, were more or less still forests, offering the foreigners cooler pastures. And so, you will find garden house clusters in Guindy and then, Pallavaram. Even today, the houses remain Anglo-Indian neighbourhoods.

Remains of splendour
Very few of these garden houses remain in their original form and grandeur. While most of the ones left standing are under government care, few have found their way to heritage happy citizens. Paul Jacob, who has the pleasure of living in his grandfather’s 124-year-old house in Pallavaram, is one such individual. “It’s from the early British period. This colony is called Veteran Lines, which was meant for veterans who retired from army service. It was then handed over mostly to Anglo Indians. Now, of course, there are very few of them left. Just about three of four of them still in their original form,” he notes. Paul, who had moved out of the house when he was a kid, returned to it only 25 years later.

What amazed him then was how little he needed to add to the house in terms of air-conditioning or lighting. The tall windows and the high ceiling ensured that the house always had plenty of light. The lime-mortar walls offered perfect insulation against heat even in high summers; even after this many years, he says.

A house in Pallavaram

On the other end of the city, in Santhome, a much bigger garden house had for long played host to the CSI Higher Secondary School for the Deaf. But, years of damage and little funds to allocate to its expensive repair had the administration moving to a new building. “The school was established in the old building in 1912, along with a hostel, vocational training centre and administration offices. During the Second World War, the children were moved to Thirukadainallur to keep them safe.

It was then that the building suffered damage from a bomb blast. It was repaired and the children returned here in 1952. But, in the 80s, the building encountered more damage to its roof. That’s when we shifted to the new building,” W James Albert, school principal, narrates. The ceiling fell through in 2006 and Vardah added to the destruction in 2016. While the building remains, the tall price of Rs 1.5-2 crore on its renovation plan has the school administration staying far from the works.

A major aspect of the garden houses that has taken a massive hit over the years is the garden itself. What once held immaculately curated gardens that had many British officers turning into amateur botanists, now barely show any sign of such grandeur. In most parts of the city, they no longer belong to the house, having been portioned and sold off. The houses that have managed to retain all that land barely have the means or expertise for the garden’s upkeep.

Lost to time
Like with most other heritage structures, lack of funds and artisans with expertise has made it difficult for the patrons to carry through with its upkeep. Paul has been there too. “We had some trouble with the roofing. So we were not able to retain the original — which was teak beams with mango tiles. We’ve tried to retain as much of the house as possible. But, it’s difficult to find professional people to work with lime mortar. We have to bring in people from Kerala or Thoothukudi. We also can’t get the materials that easily. What we did is keep the lime and mortar on the inside but rework the outside of the house,” he reveals.

“As far as we know, there has been no initiative of restoration by the government,” says Ashmitha. “Most of these houses are owned by individuals and conservation does not happen until they want it to. And we can’t blame them either because maintaining an old house is cost-intensive. When there is no incentive or help from the government, there’s only so much that happens. You have instances from other countries where there is a heritage fund, set aside for heritage homeowners. That is not the case in India and definitely not in our city. In that case, they find it profitable to bring down the building and construct a new one in its place and earn from that. Unless the government or heritage conversation community steps in and plays their part, I don’t think conservation on this front is going to happen any time soon,” she concludes.

The garden houses that were fortunate to gain the patronage of the Army have fared better, given that they have more funds at their disposal to keep up these massive structures. The others have been left to the means of heritage-appreciative folks. People like David have set out to document the last of their kind. On your part, if you happen to pass by one, you should probably stop and pay your respects. For this could very well be the end of its era.

India Matters


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