Ooty’s iconic Higginbothams bookstore might be under threat, but several Raj-era buildings are putting up a brave fight
s a steady shower falls outside the Head Post Office in Udhagamandalam, the antique Ansonia clock in the postmaster’s cabin begins its hourly chime. A little younger than the building in which it is housed, the clock—which must be wound with a brass key every morning— is, much like the 140-year-old building, part of the rich colonial heritage of this famous hillstation in the Nilgiri hills.
The clock and the building remind postmaster V. Uma Maheswari of the district’s storied history. The style pioneered by renowned architect Robert Chisholm is visible on other buildings from this period: the Nilgiri Library and the erstwhile Higginbothams book store, and, with flashes of Gothic and Renaissance styles, the Lawrence Memorial School, Breeks Memorial School, the court complex and the district collectorate.
While century-old Higginbothams may have closed shop after the building it was housed in changed hands, a majority of the Nilgiris’ heritage buildings still stand today. Many of them are in private hands, a few are woefully dilapidated, and some have been lost forever—but several buildings are in mint condition and an integral part of Nilgiris’ contemporary architectural landscape. Dharmalingam Venugopal, honorary director of the Nilgiri Documentation Centre, talks of the famed Assembly Rooms theatre hall, which was recently renovated, as a success story, but points to Glass House, which used to be a famous music hall once and was built before the theatre, which is in a state of considerable disrepair.
Another major landmark fondly remembered by old-timers is Spencer’s Supermarket, which used to be chock-full of imported meats, cheeses and other goods from around the world.Built in the late 1800s, it has been closed for more than a decade now.
Perilously close to complete collapse, the building has become something of a dumping ground for political banners and other paraphernalia. However, the metal roof supports with arabesque designs, and the structure in general, are still in relatively good shape, stoking hope that the building can be restored to its former glory.
“The structure was built by the first traders who came to the Nilgiris,” says Venugopal. But private ownership, he fears, has obviously led to a lack of access to the public and to heritage lovers.
Fortunately, some other major landmarks such as St. Stephen’s Church and Stone House (the first bungalow in Udhagamandalam, the home of John Sullivan, the first Englishman to move to Ooty and develop it) have been preserved extremely well, more or less looking as they did in the late 1800s.
The 159-year-old Nilgiri Library, one of the best preserved buildings today, is open to the public. Its restoration was completed last year. A popular venue for cultural events and literary festivals, the library is a beautiful place. Set against rolling hills, grasslands and Shola trees, its reading room full of paintings by the town’s early settlers, it is a fine example of heritage preservation done well. Next to the library is the theatre, once the Assembly Rooms where balls were held. Built in the mid-1880s, it once belonged to an Englishman who ran a tonga service from Mettupalayam to Ooty.
It was just the right size for plays staged by the Ootacamund Amateur Theatrical Society. In 1922, it was bought by Lady Wellington for ₹50,000, and handed over to the people of the town as a movie theatre. R. Wesley, 62, remembers sneaking out of school as a teen to catch matinee shows here. It remains an integral part of the town’s landscape.
D. Radhakrishnan, honorary secretary of the theatre, says he has a patron who has been visiting from the 1940s. “The Assembly Rooms is a legacy that has moved on with the times without losing its aura,” he says. It continues to be one of the few entertainment hubs in the district. In fact, even the theatre’s show times reflect the long history of the mountain town. For instance, the show times on Sunday were initially set so that planters from Kotagiri, Coonoor, Udhagamandalam and Gudalur could come on time with their families.
More than four decades ago, Saturday night shows were timed so that workers from the market, the botanical garden and other areas could visit.
St. Stephen’s and St. Thomas churches are also remarkably well preserved. The superb stained glass windows at St.Stephen’s Church draw tourists by the droves. Stone House is now the residence of the Principal of the Government Arts College.
Recently, Connemara House, located near the Government Arts College, was also restored, and now houses the government museum. Geetha Srinivasan, Convenor of INTACH in the Nilgiris, says the district is “one of the richest examples of British architecture that is well preserved in the country. There is greater awareness about preserving these buildings today.”
But while public buildings are being looked after, the problem is with “individual homes where preservation is prohibitively expensive.” The government should give some incentives, as they do in the U.K., which would help with their restoration, says Srinivasan.