184-year-old Central Library reopens to Mumbai's public

Restoration of the 184-year-old Central Library is complete, and Mumbaikars now have another heritage structure to be proud of. 

The Central Library is housed inside the Town Hall that was designed by Colonel Cooper of the Bombay Engineers and completed in 1833. Pics/Abha Narain Lambah Associates
The Central Library is housed inside the Town Hall that was designed by Colonel Cooper of the Bombay Engineers and completed in 1833. Pics/Abha Narain Lambah Associates

Every Independence Day, a high tea would be hosted in the Central Library. With the restoration complete, we're hoping to revive this tradition," reveals Abha Narain Lambah, conservation architect who supervised the restoration of one of Mumbai's oldest public halls that was inaugurated by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis earlier today at 8.50 am.

In 2009, the Public Works Department (PWD) that maintains the Central Library and Town Hall had commenced Phase 1 of the restoration, where the roof and structure were repaired.

Phase 2, which began in January 2016, involved restoring the historic library. The Rs 3 crore Phase 2 (the total cost of the project is R9 crore) came with its challenges for Lambah and her team: "Unlike Gothic buildings where roofs are exposed, here, the roof was concealed by false ceilings that faced 184 monsoons."

While Watson's on Esplanade (opened in 1871) was the first building in Bombay to use cast iron, the columns inside the Central Library were made of cast iron imported from England (c. 1833) that pre-dates the Watson's Hotel, according to Abha Narain Lambah
While Watson's on Esplanade (opened in 1871) was the first building in Bombay to use cast iron, the columns inside the Central Library were made of cast iron imported from England (c. 1833) that pre-dates the Watson's Hotel, according to Abha Narain Lambah

She reminds us that being one of the oldest public buildings, and its Neoclassical style made it more crucial to do justice to its legacy.

"We had to source good quality material like Burma teak. We were faced with a sea of steel cupboards that were actually loading the historic structure. These were swapped with wooden bookcases," she shares. Lambah is quick to add that the smooth equation between the PWD engineers and conservation architects ensured that the project met with its deadline. This was evident because though the public library was shifted to a temporary space nearby, it functioned as a working library. While the library is formally opened, it will take a few days to throw
it open for public access, we're told.

"Abha and her team accomplished an engineering feat. All we (PWD) did was hand over the site to restore it. The rest is there for all to see," says an excited Ashish Kumar Singh, principal secretary, PWD. "The CM's visit in October 2015 made a difference," |he confides, "He will be pleasantly surprised with the transformation!"

The Library hosted examinations and convocations on behalf of the Bombay University before the Fort campus was ready, and was the venue for civic functions including the Governor's Ball.

"We want to keep the spirit of multiplicity intact," says Lambah, while spelling out why the structure, home to marble statues of Montstuart Elphinstone, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Sir Juggannath Sunkersett, was the cultural hub and centrepoint of civic life in early Bombay. "Back then, it was accessed by the rich and poor; we wanted to revive that sense of dignity."

Restoration complete, Mumbaikars now have another heritage structure to be proud of. However, Singh has a message for citizens, "We need to appreciate the effort that went into preserving it, as they do in Paris and Rome."

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