Home > Calcutta (Kolkata), General > Metropolitan Building ~ Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co. to Big Bazar

Metropolitan Building ~ Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co. to Big Bazar

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co. to Big Bazar

On the eastern side of Esplanade stands a spectacular building in Baroque style, complete with domes, pediments, balconies & clock tower. Known as the Metropolitan Building it once housed Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) leading departmental stores run by the famous Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co.

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co (nicknamed ‘Right-away & Paid-for’ because it operated on cash payments only, no credit) was ‘the’ colonial emporium or department store in India and became a household name throughout the East; it was founded in Calcutta by two eponymous Scotsmen in 1882 and also had branches in Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Simla as well as further afield in Colombo, Burma, the Straits Settlements and in Shanghai. The Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co.’s departmental stores in Calcutta was considered the poshest and classiest department store this side of the Suez.

This elaborate, ‘wedding-cake’ structure was purpose-built by Calcutta-based contractors Mackintosh Burn & Co as the headquarters of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co; its architecture, sheer size and prominent corner position were intended to attract buyers to enter its doors. The ground floor and the first floor were occupied by the department store itself. Given the size of the building, the floor space was huge. The second and third floors accommodated offices and apartments; the offices were known as Victoria Chambers.

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta (Kolkata), with the yellow Ambassador Taxi

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta (Kolkata), with the yellow Ambassador Taxi

Catering almost exclusively to British tastes and clientele (as well as to the Bengali elite with Anglophile tastes), after Independence in 1947, most Anglo-Indians as well as British military and civilian staff left India to return ‘Home’ leaving venerable firms like Whiteaway, Laidlaw high and dry. The building was later acquired by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co which renamed it as Metropolitan Building. Victoria Chambers was also renamed as Satchindananda Chambers.

Today the Metropolitan Building is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the old department store area on the ground floor is now occupied by the Big Bazar, a popular Indian departmental stores, known for its low prices and promotional offers. The upper floors are occupied by innumerable tenants residing in box like quarters.

Since 2003 the Metropolitan Building has undergone several repairs and was given a dazzling white faced but the interior of Metropolitan Building is what was neglected. As a matter of fact, it was torn apart. The precious Italian marble had been removed from the floor even before repairs began. The fire sprinkler inside, meant to fight fires, was removed.

The stained glass roof of the atrium had collapsed quite some time ago. Now, there is a huge abyss in the floor which has been barricaded. The corridors around this floor are in a shambles, too. Yet expensive woodwork was replaced although it was not protected from the seeping water.

What’s worse, the balconies, ornamental work and urns, which were restored a few months ago, have already started chipping and cracking. The new material does not hold. Absence of the original design did make restoration a tough job. The portico on the Chowringhee side of the building is being rebuilt. Concrete pillars were erected after it collapsed, but their look is nothing approaching the original granite finish design.

Suddenly in 2010, Metropolitan Building was repainted. Without structural repairs that are urgently needed. And to grotesque effect. The building has always been a pristine white. Now it is being capped with gold — on its cupolas, the procession of urns on the terrace and the acanthus on top of each Corinthian column.

Ganesh Pyne was “aghast” at Metropolitan Building being imparted a golden glow. “We have no convention of painting the exterior of such a building in gold. People will rubbish it,” said the artist.

Reference:

Note:

  • Both the photos were shot in 2009, before the dome received the “Golden Glow.”
  • The photos were shot with digital SLR Nikon D60 and converted in black & white (first photo) ans selective colouring (second photo).
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  1. August 29, 2012 at 11:17 AM

    The Golden Glow is such a bad sight…it destroys the sanctity of the structure. And really sad to know what had happened inside the building. but again the problem lay in official conservation guidelines where it is generally perceived that conserving the Facade or the outside structure is enough. This perception indeed is awful and sounds the death knell for these fantastic structures. That is not conservation. I was amazed to hear some of the so called flashy news paper promoted page 3 Heritage Experts endorse such kind of conservation views. The problem lay in our attitude to heritage which must overcome the perception of “rich man’s hobby or retirement engagement”, i.e., from “doing” heritage to really caring for it and be passionate about it!

    • August 30, 2012 at 12:50 PM

      Thanks Tathagata, thanks for your informative comment. You are right this, is the age of Page 3. The Page 3 has gone beyond the glamor world, today we have Page 3 historians, architects, archaeologist, environmentalist, etc.

      We really need to change the attitude towards heritage.

      • August 30, 2012 at 5:30 PM

        Hi Rangan da thanks for your reply. I have seen indeed what Page 3 people and Page 3 NGO can do…how they can intimidate you if you try to prove how wrong they are and how academically invalid they are. But at the end of the day our voices (people like me and you and many others who are not of “page 3″ category) are never heard or respected.
        after all buttering the bread well matters a lot these days. I can only hope that these will stop. But then I also know that this hope is futile. I do not really want to come back here and work. I had had enough of “page 3″ hooliganism in the last one and half years which left a very bad taste in mouth!

  2. August 29, 2012 at 1:19 PM

    I liked the golden paint on the dome – what is bad in it ? Except in few hand painted picture post card I had not seen colour photograph of this building taken in it’s salad days.Rangan could search some old snaps of the store when it was in use- I recently read that Gayatri devi the daughter of Coachbehar royal family did her shopping mostly from this store before her marriage to King of Jaipur in 1940s.

    • August 29, 2012 at 9:41 PM

      Well that is your perspective and perspectives differ. You like it and I dont…I think that it is aesthetically bad choice to paint it in gold. Anyway the point I wanted to make was different. There is no point in just painting and repairing the exterior of buildings for show, when it is being constantly weakened structurally from within.

    • August 30, 2012 at 1:04 PM

      Somen I don’t know how you appreciated the “Golden Glow.” for me its the “rape of heritage.” I have been photographing the Metropolitan Building since mid 90s and have photographed it in different stages. The initial shots were prior to restoration, with the neon sign logo of LIC still on top. Next I have photos of the half restored building and finally the fully restored (outer part only) building. Every since the building received the golden glow I have lost the interest of photographing it again!!!!!!

      During the salad days of the Metropolitan Building colour photography was at is primitive days, so it is likely to have B/W images only.

      Somen you have also added a interesting info. on Gayatri Devi, can you please suggest the source.

  3. August 29, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    Somen Sengupta, You like the Golden Paint in the Dome of the Metropolitan Building ???? Well everyone can have their personal choice.

    May be one day Victoria Memorial Hall & Taj Mahal will have their dome painted golden, blue or Maroon and many people like you will ‘like’ it. :-)

    • August 30, 2012 at 1:06 PM

      Thanks Amitabh, yes opinions do vary so does perspective. But its very strange that Somen liked the “Golden Glow.”

      But any way its his perspective.

  4. August 31, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    Dear Tathagata it sad to know that you don’t want to come back and work in West Bengal. West Bengal has missed out on many such people like you. It has missed the services of conservation architect like Mr Deabashis Nayak and the list is endless.

  5. September 1, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    :( :(

  6. Timirbaran Pal
    December 4, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    Stone buildings like Taj or Victoria are never painted as hinted by Amitava Gupta, but plastered masonry buildings are to be painted anyway.
    Golden Dome on Golden Temple & many other temples in South India, are never criticised for the idea. There are many such domes in Calcutta which are coloured red or dark yellow. The above commenters did not leave a suggestion of theirs.

    Rang an Dutta, I salute you for your Effort in documentation of Historic/Heritage buil

  7. Timirbaran Pal
    December 4, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    One of the best photograph of the (Metropolitan) Whiteaway & Laidlaw building

    • December 4, 2012 at 9:47 PM

      Thanks Timir da for your words of appreciation.

      I just wanted to add one thing the domes and spires of Golden temple or South Indian temples are not painted gold but are literally covered with gold !!!

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