By Narayan Das Chowdhury
Standing in Park Mansions, a week after Mrs Shirin Paul gave me a Long Service Award, with authors, literary giants and guests from Kolkata, India and abroad, I felt really proud of how Apeejay was using our heritage building to make Park Street the cultural hub of Kolkata. Perhaps it was the first time that the lawn hidden away from bustling Park Street was hosting a literary landmark event – ‘Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival’ – , Perhaps it was because in January I had received my 25 years Long Service Award, Perhaps it was partnering with the Oxford Bookstore team to create the majestic event set up in the lawn, the past month just felt like a very special time and experience.
The day is still fresh in my memory when late Shri Jit Paul called me to his cabin one day and said, “I have decided to give you a new challenging assignment ND. You will be relieved from your current assignment from today and we will hand over the new assignment to you from tomorrow.” I asked, “Sir, will you please brief me about my new assignment?” He said, “You are aware that we have got a property in Park Street called Park Mansions. From tomorrow, you will look after that property as Manager.”
With a touch of Indian architectural style on the façade, Park Mansions was developed by Armenian jute merchant T.M.Thaddeus in 1910. The architecture is a mix of Victorian and Indo- Saracen styles, having a bulbous dome on the roof and British-style interiors . The built up area of the property is about 1,52,000 Sq Ft. and the façade area is about a lakh square feet and Shri Jit Paul vision was to restore the city centre architectural heritage to its original glory as built by Mr T M Thaddeus in 1910. It was no mean task.
I have witnessed various “colours” of this magnificent building over the years and how we have restored and transformed it over the years since we bought it in 1980s. I joined the Group 25 years ago as a Manager.
Constructed for mixed usage – residential and commercial, Park Mansions is spread over more than 5 bighas (1.77 acres) on Kolkata’s High Street, Park Street, its restoration required significant funding and painstaking restoration effort. Apeejay Real Estate took up the restoration effort in 2008 and completed the project around the time Apeejay Surrendra Group was celebrating its Centennial in 2010– 2011. This is why when I see a major event like Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival hosted in this magnificent building attracting 100s of people every day, to use and admire, as it stands today in all its original glory, completely secure from hazards that plague old heritage structures with perhaps even better detailing than when it was first constructed in 1910, it is something that I treasure as my career’s big achievement.
It seems to me that this is what its purpose was – to bring people together and feel pride in their city’s history and heritage.
The Park Mansions Restoration project involved many challenging facets. While the tenants still occupied the residential part of the building, the team had to change the roofing, reinforce sections that had been weakened by a fire in 1990, overhaul the electrical systems completely, modernize overhead water distribution system, elevators, reverse the effects of aging apart from rebuilding its intricately carved out front façade, inner courtyard, driveway and lighting arrangements. Fully vigilant of the risks involved, the restoration team ensured that the working environment was secure for the workers as they went about this challenging project and saw to it that the tenants living in the residential segments did not face any problem.
Fate had different plans, we lost Shri Jit Paul in 2009. His vision was strengthened when the mantle was taken over by our respected Chairman Mr Karan Paul. Had it not been for his support and unflinching commitment to the project, the restoration work would not have been completed in time. Chairman Mr Karan Paul shared the same vision as his illustrious uncle and carried forward the legacy with equal dedication and commitment like it was a ‘labour of love’. More than 40 contractors and vendors were involved in the project and 50-60 workers could be found on the site at any given point of time during the restoration process.
Meticulous attention was given towards recreating each and every element as it originally was or as it should have been depending on the merits of the condition of decay at that moment. The effort encompassed changing of windows to handrails of stairs, lifts, entrance flooring, flat flooring, joists, balcony railings, cast iron structures like balcony supports, fire escape stairs and railings, colour-glazed glass panes, arches, doors, flat numbering, gate numbering, louvers, balustrades, column heads, domes, key of arches, arch supports, bolts, locks, etc.
While restoring, we faced challenges but we had our expert team on the job. To share a few of them – the 1100 piece Roof Balustrade needed changing as they were damaged beyond repair. The key issue was to recreate them in terracotta. Each baluster had eight curved sculpted parts that had to be fused individually together. For this, every sculptor well known for their prowess in terracotta work tried their hands, but they failed to recreate them. Finally, the team found its answer in a Presidential Award winner for Excellence in Terracotta work – Mr. Gopal Das – who recreated it exactly as conceived by the architect. Mr Das was a handicapped artisan from Bandel, Hooghly. It took him more than eight months to deliver the required number of pieces to us for renovation of the Roof Balustrade!
Similarly, there were a total of 12 balcony railings which had to be recreated as they were damaged beyond repair. They were made of cast iron support bracket. The Balustrade was designed by French Architect Mr. Laurence Loho – a visiting guest at Mr. Dulal Mukherjee. He did so out of sheer admiration for massive restoration initiative being undertaken at the magnificent structure. He also recreated some of the miniature details of the facade that were lost with time and decay. All of this pro bono!
The façade was a big challenge to recreate and finding good craftsman was important. The project was allotted to an expert specialized in restoration work, especially Armenian structures all over India. Seven highly skilled craftsmen specializing in architectural façade design plaster work were exclusively responsible for the outside façade renovation and another 20 of them provided necessary support for the restoration. Every curve, every artwork restored on the outer facade is an example of their skill and prowess.
Two specialized elderly masons were hired to recreate the domes and it took about seven months. The style of the domes is Victorian and all four serve different purposes impeccably connected to the escape staircases and the main dome. The roof was accessible through four escape staircases but it was never connected to the main staircase which was an additional work done by the team for safety reasons.
The terrace of the building was one of the biggest challenges! Replacing the entire roof of the building, while the Tenants were still residing, without causing much disturbance or compromising their safety and security or physical damage to their property is a big ask. The entire roof was peeled away; a secondary temporary roof with waterproof sheets was placed to ensure that rainwater does not seep through and cause inconvenience or damage while the new roof was created above it. Traditionally roofs of the building used to be cast on a tiled surface over either iron or wooden joists with concrete & lime. Since renovation of a Heritage structure means recreating it with the same or similar material as it was originally made of, we had to bring in shell lime from Chennai as it is not freely available in Kolkata. Also working with lime is a specialized and time consuming affair. Unlike cement which dries up in 24 hrs, lime takes months to dry.
During Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, well know calcutta personality Mr Jimmy Tangree interviewed Ms Priti Paul for an FB Live session. You can see what I see today in Park Mansions in this link : https://www.facebook.com/919FriendsFM/videos/946527399069634
You can see our lift , our rooftop, how our the spaces are being used today. In the entire restoration process we have tried to be meticulous in recreating each and every element as it was or as it should have been depending on the merits of the condition of decay at that moment. Restoring the design was a challenge due to want of artisans.
In this live interview on Facebook you can also see the staircase wooden railings have been hand carved out of solid wood. We have replaced more than 100 pcs of railing stand in all the stairs. Initially the carvings were tried in machines but that failed to produce exact replica. Hence later they were hand carved fitted individually. The stained glass seen over the gates was collected from various old buildings that have been brought down in Kolkata since similar stained glasses are no more in production nowadays.
Today, the shining golden dome and perfectly carved out intricate front facade stands out on the high street of West Bengal’s capital city for its majestic glory and the commercial section facing Park Street is a buzzing retail space with signature stores of many Indian and international brands. Park Mansions hosts Hard Rock Café and Starbucks of Kolkata. It is home to educational and cultural institutions like Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise. Both the organizations were hosting prestigious events of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2019 and the entire building was abuzz. It is something I really feel proud of!
Narayan Das Chowdhury is Director, Park Mansions