Aspinwall House transfer to Coast Guard will ruin heritage charm says Kochi Mayor

Mayor M Anilkumar told TNIE that he had a telephonic conversation with the Coast Guard head, who told him that the maritime agency is not particular about buying Aspinwall House.
A view of Aspinwall
A view of Aspinwall Photo | A Sanesh

KOCHI: Amid talk of the Kochi Biennale being postponed because of financial constraints, history enthusiasts and other stakeholders have expressed concerns over the handing over of Aspinwall House -- a 180-year-old heritage property that has been serving as the main venue of Biennale -- to the Indian Coast Guard for its day-to-day operations.

Kochi Mayor M Anilkumar told TNIE that he had a telephonic conversation with the Coast Guard head, who told him that the maritime agency is not particular about buying Aspinwall House if it has alternative land.

“I have written to the chief minister and have brought the matter to the notice of Industries Minister P Rajeeve, who is also in charge of the district, seeking urgent intervention,” Anilkumar said.

Sources confirmed that a deal was agreed between DLF Group -- the current owners of Aspinwall House -- and Coast Guard. “It is true that DLF has plans to sell the property to the Coast Guard. However, the discussion is in its initial stage,” said another source.

A couple of years ago, the state government had plans to acquire Aspinwall House through the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB). Though discussions and talks were held, they didn’t lead to a closure. The 2.44-acre land on which the Aspinwall building is located and the adjoining 1.26-acres of the Cabral Yard belong to DLF. The area also has 1.26 acres of government land. The state government had plans to acquire land from DLF and keep all of it as public property. It was also planned to be designated as the permanent Biennale venue.

K J Sohan, former Kochi mayor and historian, said that in the event of the transfer of Fort Kochi’s historic Aspinwall House building to the Coast Guard, Kochi is set to lose yet another internationally renowned heritage site.

“It’s unfortunate that a heritage property, which draws numerous international tourists, is being repurposed for ordinary use. The Coast Guard already has its headquarters in the area. If Aspinwall House is also acquired by them, then the city will lose its charm. People from across the world travel to Fort Kochi to see these monuments and heritage properties. If the Coast Guard wants land, they can take it from the Cochin Port Trust in Willingdon Island. Acres of land on the island are lying vacant,” Sohan said.

Pointing out that this is not the first such incident, Bony Thomas, nodal officer of the Cochin Heritage Zone Conservation Society, said another heritage building previously taken over by the Coast Guard -- the Volkart Brothers Company building -- provides a stark example of what might happen to Aspinwall House. “Established in 1859 by the Swiss company Volkart Brothers, the building has become inaccessible to the public after the Coast Guard acquired it years ago. Its current state is unknown,” Bony said. Speaking about the building’s history, he said that it was once the fourth-largest cotton trading company in the world. “Volkart’s building was a significant part of Kochi’s heritage wealth,” he said.

The Aspinwall Company building, constructed in the 19th century, is named after visionary British trader John Aspinwall who advocated for modern ports and railways in Kochi with the British authorities, Bony said. “The building gained global recognition as a venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The transfer of Aspinwall House to the Coast Guard signifies the potential loss of another heritage site in Fort Kochi -- Albuquerque Jetty, located between the Coast Guard office and Aspinwall House. It was named after a Portuguese navigator, Afonso de Albuquerque,” he said. It is said that Albuquerque disembarked from his ship at the site in 1503.

“Under his leadership, the Portuguese built a fort in Fort Kochi with the permission of the Kochi King, marking the first European fort in India. The loss of century-old heritage sites in the Fort Kochi-Mattancherry area will impact Kochi’s cultural tourism and those who depend on it for their livelihood. These heritage sites are the primary attractions that draw tourists to the Fort Kochi, and it should be preserved,” Bony said.

Brief history

  • The Aspinwall Company building, constructed in the 19th century, is named after visionary British trader John Aspinwall who advocated for modern ports and railways in Kochi with the British authorities

  • The building gained global recognition as a venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

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