Madras GPO building - a colonial structure facing ruin

During the colonial time, Madras (Chennai) was a major center of power after Calcutta and the presence of  a British settlement and trade activities  in this city for a pretty long time had impacted the cultural and architectural history of this place.  Chennai  has  the unique distinction of having countless colonial buildings, mostly built in Indo-Saracenic style and  the  General Post Office (GPO) building is one among them. Now, a part of the building is facing degradation because of negligence on the part of the government department that is in charge of the heritage sites. The same situation persists at many heritage sites and ancient monuments. The lethargic attitude of the authorities comes from lack of discipline and, in many cases, dereliction of duty.

Chennai G.P.O. 1905.

Chennai G.P.O. 1905.

Chennai General Post Office (GPO)  on Rajaji Salai at Parry's Corner  is a heritage building constructed in  1884. It is located opposite to the  Beach suburban railway station.

Chennai  General Post Office. George Town.  in Camera

Above image: Chennai GPO.  ''
The Madras G.P.O. started functioning from June 1, 1786 and the first Postmaster-General was Sir Archibald's secretary, A.M. Campbell. Robert Mitford was appointed the Deputy Postmaster-General. The G.P.O. was served by one Writer (clerk), five sorters, a head peon and ten postmen''.  ................................

The GPO, Madras vintage photo.

Governor Harrison (1711-1717) introduced a Company Postal Service in Madras in 1712 for the purpose  of sending mail  to Bengal by dak runner. A sort of  postal system evolved by 1736 and it was not good enough to meet the demand and this further developed into a different postal system in 1774  of charging postage on private letters to be sent out.  Philip Burlton and Thomas Lewin of the East India Company in mid 1780s talked to the Governor of Madras and emphasized the importance of introducing  new postal rules, setting up a postal network and establishing  a postal authority.  Chennai General Post Office was, in the early days,  functioning in Fort St. George, just outside the Sea Gate. Later many receiving offices were opened in places like Royapettah, Triplicane, Tynampet.  etc.,  and in 1855 first postage stamps and letter boxes were introduced. 

George town, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Though the telegraph came to Madras in 1853, it became operational in 1855. Postal services grew  well after  building railway line between Madras and Calcutta  Presidencies.  The postal services grew by leaps and bound and by  1874, there were nine post offices in the city. The mails were delivered using horse cart (in local parlance jutkas) till 1918, though  motorized transport was introduced  in 1915. The Chamber of commerce at Madras in 1868  urged the government and the state Presidency to build a large separate Postal  building for good service and better efficiency in terms of receipt of letters and their distribution.  After a long delay due to lack of  funds, the work got delayed until 1880.  Later the first Madras Post Office, the Madras GPO, was established  by Governor Sir Archibald Campbell (1786-1790) to house both the post and telegraphic departments in the same place. Fixed postal charges on letters  were levied. Thus the Postal services began in earnest as a government facility.
GPO, Chennai, colonial building (1874)

Upon completion of the huge building in Indo-Saracenic style,
the Madras Post Office moved into the present building in April 1884. The Postmaster-General shifted  his office on 1 March 1884 from  the Mercantile Bank building further down the road; staff moved in  during April 1884. The new building had cost ₹ 680,000  a big chunk of contribution was made by  the Madras Chamber of Commerce. The total floor area was 55,000 sq. feet. 
The Chennai GPO building, with elements of red-painted Victorian County-Colonial or Victorian Gothic-Colonial overlay on Indo-Saracenic design is an impressive building. This 
three-story  colonial edifice with Kerala-style roof measures, 352 ft long and 162 ft wide, with 125-ft tall twin towers. Architect  Chisholm, when  he went to the Princely state of Travancore  on assignments, was  very much impressed by the Kerala-style  design with slanting roof  and caps because the west coast receives lots of rain during the monsoon. This design drains the rain water falling on the roof quickly and the protruding roof on sides  of the structure prevents rain water damaging the walls.  In his buildings built in India, one could notice the influence of Kerala architecture. In the case of GPO building, Chennai  he put the crowns  atop the building and unfortunately a storm in the mid-20th century removed these crowns on the twin towers.

GPO, Rajaji salai, Chennai static

The central  hall  has high ceiling as one find in all European buildings in many places and this is to avoid summer heat radiation. This would keep the interior cool and comfortable on hot days.  The ground floor  was built with a view to providing  enough space for stores, kitchen, servants, and so on. The first floor was  meant for  for offices  purposes and the second floor served as accommodation for officers working there. The structure also included an apartment for the Postmaster-General. A  striking  feature of  this building is the presence of  a strange exhaust facility. It was  meant to absorb  the stench from the open drainage near-by.

This heritage building was damaged due to a major fire accident on 23 October 2000; an area comprising  15,000 sq ft of the total 67,000 sq ft of built-up area was lost  due to the fire. Soon restoration work was carried out at the cost of Rs. 36 million and in 2005 the first two floors were opened after restoration. In 2011, a part of the second floor roof caved in  due to sustained heavy  downpour due to SW monsoon. Part of this colonial structure is not in good shape because of poor maintenance by the authorities concerned. Unless the state government takes urgent steps to restore this  unique historical building that is associated with various past colonial events, the building may fall apart slowly. Every monsoon season will be a threat not only to this structure but also to other historical ones that need urgent action. Because of global warming, in the future we expect heavy downpour and powerful cyclones. Old monuments and heritage structures should be properly strengthened structurally to face the fury of nature in the near future.