Did Mumbai get the wrong CST station?

May 01, 2011, 08:27 IST | FIONA FERNANDEZ

According to a rumour fuelled by a few Australian websites, in the late 1800s, the plans of Bombay's Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) might have been swapped with those of Melbourne's Flinders Street Station. Sunday MiDDAY sets the record straight by throwing open the controversial subject to some of the city's most respected historians and architects

According to a rumour fuelled by a few Australian websites, in the late 1800s, the plans of Bombay's Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) might have been swapped with those of Melbourne's Flinders Street Station. Sunday MiDDAY sets the record straight by throwing open the controversial subject to some of the city's most respected historians and architects

May 11 marks the 164th birth anniversary of Fredrick William Stevens, the Bombay (and Neo) Gothic practitioner who was commissioned by the Government of India and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIP) to design the Victoria Terminus in 1878.




The scoop that wasn't: Experts refute the rumour about the plans for
Victoria (now Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus in Mumbai being accidentally
exchanged with the plans for Melbourne's Flinders Street Station (above).
Pics/AFP photo

This, after in the late 1800s, when sets of plans for impressive railway termini were finalised for two world cities -- Bombay and Melbourne.

Eleven years later, in Melbourne, the Railway Commissioners arranged a worldwide competition for the design of a new station at Flinders Street. Of the 17 entries, the first prize of 500 pounds was awarded to railway architect JW Fawcett and railway engineer HPC Ashworth. The Victoria Terminus was ready in May 1888; Melbourne's pride was fully operational in 1910.

While the above information has been well documented on both continents, a set of rumours floating on websites of mostly Australian origin have turned this set of historic facts on its head.

For Mumbai or Melbourne? 
According to the parallel theory, Fawcett and Ashworth, who won the design competition, sent their rough plans to Stevens for a series of modifications. Their plans had to be altered due to a shortage of space for Flinders Street Station. Stevens is supposed to have finished both sets of plans (including his own of the Victoria Terminus) at around the same time. He sent the wrong plans to Melbourne, resulting in a colossal mix-up. The reason behind this swap -- Bombay's terminus was called Victoria, and Flinders Street Station is in the state of Victoria.

"One shouldn't rely on everything that floats on the Internet. FW Stevens was the big boss in those times, he was a consulting architect to the Government of India. So, he could take a call if he learnt of the swap. His name has always been associated with the Victoria Terminus," says Sharada Dwivedi, author, A City Icon, one of the best research-based books on the terminus. Dwivedi, who has written 11 books on Mumbai, maintains that while Stevens may have referred to the odd building for structural inspiration, it is the maximum extent to which one can stretch this reasoning. "The Central Railway has custody of Stevens' original plans, about 150 of them, each beautifully hand-drawn and duly undersigned. These provide detailed readings of  the terminus' sections, rooms, elevations and ground plans."

One look at these plans (reproduced in A City Icon), and it's clear that Stevens' attention to detail was incomparable. How could a perfectionist have allowed for such an oversight? Besides, apart from his 10-month absence from Bombay in 1878, records prove that Stevens lived in India, till his death in 1900.

Echoing her sentiment is Vikas Dilawari, conservation architect responsible for restoring some of Mumbai's most famous landmarks. "I have never heard of this. To the best of my knowledge, it was the perspective of Swedish draughtsman Axel Herman Haig, which helped Stevens' appointment." Conceived between 1876 and 1878, Haig's watercolour representation of the terminus provided the most elaborate visual of the project. Haig's use of domes, turrets and cupolas found favour with Stevens who went ahead with his plans.

Is there a connect?
One of the most prominent features of Victoria Terminus is the inclusion of Indian decorative elements. Sir John Lockwood Kipling and his students from Sir JJ School of Art were responsible for these designs. Raosaheb Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya, Assistant Engineer and Stevens' Man Friday helped execute them. Peacocks, tigers and verandas reflect an overwhelming Indian influence.

"Stevens was an outstanding architect who went to great lengths to incorporate Indian elements and motifs. This rumour makes for quite a story, though. Such attention to detail would've been impossible with an outsider. Sir GG Scott is an exception. Despite never having visited the city, he designed the Bombay University buildings. In contrast, Stevens was a Bombay boy. After his services were terminated in 1887, he set up his architectural firm on Dr DN Road and stayed on until his tragic death in 1900," says Dr Mariam Dossal, historian and author of Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (The Planning of Bombay City:1845-75). Dossal says that the Gothic style which was kicked off in the 1840s with Henry Conybeare's designs for the Afghan Church, reached full fruition with the High Gothic era, visible in the Victoria Terminus' designs.

In contrast, Flinders Street Station reflects the Edwardian Baroque Free Style. Its main building bears a strong French Renaissance influence inspired by French public architecture of the 1900s. The symmetrical composition of the main sections, the use of giant order, piers, squat domes, broad arches, grouping of windows and the figures in relief over the arches of the original design showcase this influence. Traces of American Romanesque revival can also be spotted.

With VT, Stevens ensured that local material was used along with Italian marble and British-made columns and staircases. Courses of Porbunder stone were used for the facings. The capitals for the booking halls were carved out of a single piece of white Seoni sandstone. For Flinders Street Station, red brick, easily found in Melbourne's architecture at the time, dominates the facades. Grey granite from Harcourt (Victoria) and locally available lightweight timber was also used.

The railway age
One part of the rumour highlights that Melbourne's city fathers wanted Flinders Street Station's main entrance to face Elizabeth Street and not look onto the Swanston Street corner where it was finally built. This, apparently, was the only other discordant murmur about the station's plans. Interestingly, Flinders Street Station inspired Sao Paulo's Luz Station.

"Even if I were to play devil's advocate, my question is why would Stevens make any contact with architects from Melbourne?" asks Dwivedi.

City historian Deepak Rao shares that while the construction of the terminus was marred at various stages due to land reclamation hurdles and financial hiccups, Stevens and his team stuck to their plans. "He made it a grand reminder that highlighted the glorious days of the Indian Railways. It, was as popular, if not even more, than the Taj Mahal. Stevens ensured it stood at a junction of four important roads. Such was his foresight. Australia didn't have this splendid Gothic architectural connect," he shares.

Dossal puts Stevens' contribution in the right perspective -- "Victoria Terminus was a symbolic representation of the Railway Age. The railways in India were like the churches of England; they were meant to instill the same kind of faith, progress and development for its people...such rumours don't stand a chance."

U-Turn
Amusingly, after presenting this bizarre stance, most of the websites eventually took the safe route, stating that for lack of evidence, this theory remains a rumour. They cite how the main bone of contention is the huge window from the time Stevens built VT (1878-88) to when Fawcett and Ashworth's designs were implemented (early 1900). 
Perhaps, a visit to Stevens' grave at Sewri cemetery on May 11 might place such rumours in the right context -- RIP.

Sources: Bombay Gothic, Christopher London, A City Icon by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra and Imperial Designs and Indian Realities by Mariam Dossal

Note: Mumbai and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus have been referred to as Bombay and Victoria Terminus respectively, to maintain continuity in the historic context of the story

FW Stevens' inspiration for VT
St Pancras Station, London (1868-74):
Experts maintain that this station, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, was Stevens' chief inspiration. Pancras' innovative domes, arches, pinnacled tower at the centre with a porte-cochere entrance below and clock tower, as well as long train sheds leading outwards bear a striking resemblance to Victoria Terminus. Most link this connect with the fact that when Stevens left for his ten-month long furlough to study other important railway termini, this particular landmark had just been completed and may have impacted his design sense for VT.


(Top) St Pancras Station in London; (Below) The Reichstag or German
Parliament in Berlin




German Houses of Parliament (Reichstag), Berlin (1872): Sir GG Scott's design had only been published four years prior to Stevens' first proposal. Common elements include a central dome topped by an allegorical figure, office wings that run at right angles to the main block and three entrance doors and gables at the ground level that are surmounted by a set of three bays of windows with a rose window above.

Other buildings that influenced FW Stevens: Government House at Whitehall and Midland Grand Hotel, London. Both were designed by Sir GG Scott.

Whose land is it anyway?
For Victoria Terminus, about 80 acres had to be reclaimed from the harbour side. As early as 1861, the Bombay Government had entered into an agreement with the Elphinstone Land and Press Company to reclaim two-thirds of Mody Bay, of which 100 acres were to be given for the construction of VT. In the early days, the area on which VT stood was called Bori Bunder. This area was a landing place for boats, and was used for loading and unloading of duty-free goods and other produce.

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