Metropolitan Building A saga of Survival

Joydip Sur

On many an occasion, the LIC have been alleged to plant stories in the local newspapers that the building’s demolition is imminent. Numerous times, it has been rumoured that the bell tolls for this historical structure. But there is a certain stubborn sense of survival that surrounds it.

Metropolitan Building is perhaps one of the greatest heritage structures of Calcutta in terms of its saga of survival and the never-say-die-spirit it exudes, much like the city itself.

Standing tall at the Chowringhee Road and Surendranath Banerjea Road crossing, the grandeur and fame of this historical edifice is sadly a thing of the past. Built in 1905, by Mackintosh Burn Ltd, Metropolitan Building was once home to Asia’s biggest departmental store.

Formerly Calcutta’s ‘Premier Shopping Centre’, the Whiteaway & Laidlaw departmental store once filled its showroom with the best merchandise in the city, in the same league as Spencer’s in Madras.

This is where the British army officers stationed in Singapore on short furlough would shop for lifestyle products. One could power-dress in tropical linen suits, sip on the best quality Darjeeling tea and dig into delicious chicken sandwiches for breakfast at the lifestyle retail rendezvous.

Whiteaway & Laidlaw bathed in the limelight in this choicest location for approximately half a century. The store occupied the ground and first floors, a considerable area, while the rest of the building, divided up into flats and offices, was referred to as the Victoria Chambers.

A few years after the independence, the steam went out of the enterprise and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. assumed ownership of this massive property. Soon after the transfer of ownership, Victoria Chambers was rechristened as Satchinanda Chambers but the Metropolitan name stuck to the building.

The feel of the old departmental store is still present in the building, especially in the ground floor area, which now houses the Rajasthan State Emporium. Metropolitan Building is also home to the Big Bazaar. A team from National Institute of Design, Amhedabad, has designed the interior of this store keeping Calcutta’s urban history and cultural ethos in mind.  .

Architecturally, the building is truly fascinating. Each and every detail of the external design is praiseworthy. The Corinthian pillars that can be seen at generous intervals across the entire structure lend a grand look to this edifice.

Each of the three cupolas, situated on the northern, southwestern and southeastern corner adds to the beauty of this building. But by far, the most popular feature of Metropolitan Building is the triple faced clock facing in three different directions of the city – up north towards BBD Bag, west over the Maidan and southeast down Surendranath Banerjea Road.

Despite repeated warnings that the building is not safe for human occupancy, the overall structure still seems decently sound. The whole interior of the building, which orbits round a central courtyard, is a healthy, robust world to itself. The magnanimous façade of the Metropolitan Building looks majestic – truly befitting the grandeur that it once lay claim to.

As I stood watching the golden rays of the setting summer sun adorn the edifice, the only thought that crossed my mind was that, I hope some day in the future, we learn to care more for the treasures that our forefathers have left behind.