when you get down at the Chennai Central Station and proceed towards the car parking , it would be difficult to escape a grand old building staring at you at a distance. This building happened to be an inviting curiosity for me even when I was a child. The need to catch a taxi to reach home quickly was so overbearing that I could never find time to go nearer to the imposing structure, except while passing by, seated in the car. Now that I have been in Chennai for a couple of months , I ventured to visit the building a couple of times with a view to gain an entry. However all my attempts were thwarted due to the Chennai Metro Rail Project. They are constructing the underground portion of the project and the tunnelling work was in progress just adjoining the place. The area was cordoned off with corrugated tin sheets and a watchman has been posted to prevent entry to the premises. Therefore I had to satisfy myself with few snaps from outside. The building referred to is the Victoria Public Hall commonly known as the Town Hall.
During the 1880s a need was felt to have a community hall where cultural and social programmes could be held. A meeting was organised by prominent citizens in 1882 and the participants had contributed around Rs.20,000 for the purpose. A separate Trust was also created to implement the project. The civic body i.e. the Corporation of Madras also provided land admeasuring 3.14 acres on a 99 years lease. A foundation stone was laid in December 1883 and by 1888 the construction could get completed. The architect credited to have designed this beautiful building was Robert Fellowes Chisholm and as with many other buildings of Madras this too was a derivation of Indo-Saracenic architecture. To commemorate the Golden Jubilee of queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, it was named after her.
The main building has two floors. There are four beautiful wooden staircases leading to the first floor. both floors put together has an area of 26000 square feet and every floor has a seating capacity for 600 people. Once having been opened to the public many a social organisations jumped in. Plays were being staged every evening on a regular basis. Swami Vivekananda, Subramania Bharati, Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel were amongst the great men of yester years who addressed public meetings at this venue. The hall was also used for screening some 10 English films in 1892 by one T. Stevenson the owner of Madras Photographic Stores. Incidentally by that time the Indian Cinema was yet to be born. The first Tamil film “Keechaka Vadham” without a sound track was produced only in 1918.
With the passage of time, the health of the building started deteriorating and by the second half of the 20th century it became critically ill due to continued neglect. There had been some attempts to rejuvenate it but they proved inadequate. For the last 45 years the hall is in a state of Coma. In between the Trust leased out the spaces around it for commercial purposes. Taking advantage of the situation certain unscrupulous traders also made their intrusions to put up their stalls/shops. Disputes surfaced between the Corporation and the Trust when the 99 years lease term expired. Fortunately the Corporation was in a position to take over the building after eviction of all those illegal occupants. Due to continued hue and cry made by heritage lovers the Corporation sanctioned an expenditure of Rs.3.39 Crores for complete renovation/restoration of the building and work started in 2009. When the work was half way, the Metro Rail Project commenced its construction work resulting in a temporary stoppage of the renovation project. However, the Chennai Corporation has announced recently that by end of July 2013, the Victoria Public Hall would be in its original shape. At the moment we do not know whether the hall would get opened up for social/cultural purposes as was originally envisaged.
Under the Chennai Metro Rail Project, the trains are to travel over pillars and they will go underground in busy areas. As has been stated earlier, the tunnelling work is in progress near the Victoria Public Hall and they have also encroached upon the area in front of the building. A beautiful fountain which existed thereat has since been removed and moved to the right hand side of the hall. In the process some ornamentations have been broken/lost. This fountain too has a story of its own.
During the British rule, Government’s budget proposals were introduced by James Wilson in 1860 for the first time when the capital of the country used to be in Calcutta. Losses sustained during the Freedom Struggle of 1857 were sought to be bridged by taxing the personal income of citizens. Every individual with an income of Rs.200 was within the ambit of the proposed tax net. This move was highly resented and there was a hue and cry amongst the people. Charles Trevelyan who happened to be the Governor of Madras Presidency in those days, supported the people’s movement and expressed his anguish by sending a telegram to Fort William, Calcutta. As an after effect he had to compromise with his job. When Trevelyan was the Chairperson of the Madras Corporation, he made available potable drinking water for the people and also created a beautiful park in the heart of the city. A fountain was built in front of the Victoria Public Hall in his fond memory which is known as Trevelyan Fountain.
Incidentally there is another heritage building known as Victoria Memorial Hall which houses the National Art Gallery. This building too remains closed for the last 10 years or so on account of some cracks having developed inside. This building awaits restoration.