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Conservation of heritage buildings tied to memories of people: Historians

When Dr Dinaker Moses was a student at the Stanley Medical College in 1979, the fountain in the campus was called ‘the fountain of love, youth, and knowledge’.

Conservation of heritage buildings tied to memories of people: Historians
An old photo of the fountain of love, youth, and knowledge


Set right in the middle of campus and surrounded by decades-old trees that housed migrating cranes once a year, the watering hole of the college was where many students congregated and mingled.

“It was called the fountain of youth because we were all hot-blooded youngsters at the time. The fountain of knowledge is obvious because the library is nearby and we would sit around the fountain and study. And the fountain of love because there were many couples that sat there together, doing whatever it is that young couples do,” laughs Dr Dinaker.

Although formally established in 1938, the foundation for the college was established in the mid-1700s during the era of the East India Company to give people porridge during the 1781 famine. Since then, the college has had an illustrious roster of alumni such as founder and CEO of Apollo Hospitals, Dr Prathap C Reddy, Padma Bhushan awardee Dr VS Ramachandran and founder of Aravind Eye Hospitals, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy.

And for the alumni of the college, the institution is important as a part of their college days. One of the places dear in his heart is the World War II gallows opposite the college, says Dr N Manickavel, another alumnus of the college. “It was shaped like a fort and below the gallows itself was the cellars. At the time, the cellars were used for medical storage, about ten feet below ground level,” he said. Nearby, there is also a memorial for all the lives that were lost during this period.

These World War II-era buildings are also a part of Madras’ history, according to historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan. “There was air raid patrol shelters built all across the city. People were afraid of air raids at the time, even though Madras was witness to only one. These buildings were built to be sturdy enough to withstand air fire,” he said. In Stanley Medical College, according to the alumni, were four ARP shelters, but only two remain now. Alumni have been protesting against the demolition of these personally dear, and often times historic, buildings for many years now. However, their fight might not be as simple as they once thought. According to historians and experts, conserving and managing these heritage buildings is an uphill task.

“When we try to understand the sustainability triangle of structures, which are social, economic and environmental, we must add one point to this with regard to heritage buildings, and that is the emotional. This refers to the different stories attached to these buildings. More often than not, this is all the more important for heritage structures,” said historian Thirupurasundari Sevvel. The preservation of these buildings, according to her, is essential for saving the stories attached to them.

However, according to Dr Nalini Thakur, professor of Architectural Conservation, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, there is very little protection of heritage building by law, which are not enforced properly. “There needs to be a law that protects these buildings, and to what extent they must be protected. If changes are made, to what extent that can be made, what kind of study must be done, and what materials are used to make these changes. There are some laws that preserve the British-era buildings, but there is little space for the other buildings. What happens to them,” she asked.

However, both Thakur and Sevvel state that the best way to preserve such buildings is through civic and community action and participation with local government bodies, through the shared experiences of those associated with the heritage monuments.

“The college holds many fond memories for me and my college days. It feels like I am losing a long-lost love and it hurts more as these buildings also share the Stanleian spirit in them,” said Dr Dinaker.

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