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.
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.
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.
- Flick Photo by DCR Finch
- Nothing saved but face – Metropolitan Building roof still unprotected by Staff Reporter The Telegraph, Calcutta Dec 04, 2006
- A Brief History of Shopping by Soumitra Das The Telegraph, Calcutta July 01, 2008
- Grotesque gold on white landmark, The Telegraph, Calcutta Sept 07, 2010
- 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).