Saturday, 1 July 2017

Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co., Strand Road

Inchcape House, known to most as the Mackinnon Mackenzie Building and today as Diamond Heritage, is one of the most prominent buildings on Strand Road and part of Calcutta’s skyline visible from across the river. While the building is not as remarkable architecturally as some of the other buildings in the Dalhousie area, it is magnificent because of its staggering proportions and its history. Mackinnon Mackenzie’s story is another of the great Scottish success stories in Calcutta (Kolkata). It is also one of the rare buildings in the city that has been saved from complete oblivion.















ENTERPRISING SCOTS: THE MACKINNON MACKENZIE STORY

Mackinnon Mackenzie’s story begins in Ghazipur, in modern day Uttar Pradesh. Robert Mackenzie from Campbeltown, Argyll arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1836. Four years later he became the Bengal agent for the India General Steam Navigation Company, based in Ghazipur. In 1847 he teamed up his old friend William Mackinnon, also from Campbeltown, who at that time was running a sugar refinery in Cossipore near Calcutta (Kolkata). Mackinnon already had experience working with a Portuguese East India trader and the two quickly became partners, joined by another younger Mackinnon and James McAlister Hall, another mutual friend from Campbeltown. Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co was founded in 1847 in Cossipore with the formal deed being signed in December of that year. The firm began as general traders, dealing in tea, sugar and rice and soon began chartering ships for their own imports and exports. Then in May 1851 a prospector by the name of Edward Hargraves claimed to have found gold in Australia’s New South Wales, beginning the Australian Gold Rush. Robert Mackenzie set off to Australia the following year to explore trading possibilities but was killed on his return trip in 1853 when his ship, the SS Aurora was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland. William Mackinnon acquired his shares after his death and expanded the business, opening a Glasgow office and an associated firm in Liverpool.


One of the staircases of Inchcape House after the restoration
By 1852, William Mackinnon made his first purchase, a small vessel called Queen. By this time,3 firms, William Mackinnon & Co. of Glasgow, Hall Mackinnon & Co. of Liverpool and Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. of Calcutta were trading together between India, Britain and Australia. In 1856, William Mackinnon set up the Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Company and secured the contract to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon (Yangon). This would later evolve into the British India Steam Navigation Company or BI. The following year the company carried troops from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to India during the mutiny and by 1862, they were carrying mail on a number of new routes. When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, a BI ship became the first to cross it into the Mediterranean. By 1870 they had secured all government mail contracts, giving them a commanding position in Indian waters. BI grew into one of the biggest shipping lines in the world, challenging the mighty P&O. As BI grew, Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. as the managing agents grew with it. By the 1860’s alongside their regular shipping contracts, BI was also ferrying Haj pilgrims to and from Bombay to Jeddah. 

The opening of the Suez Canal on 17th November, 1869 had caused a surge in trade between India and Europe. To handle the extra volume of work, BI’s Calcutta agents Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. asked their London counterparts, Gray, Dawes & Co. for a shipping assistant. The job was secured by a man named James Mackay, who arrived in India in 1874. Mackay would rise to the position of partner at the age of 26 and by 1884 was receiving 15% of the company’s profits. By 1890, Mackay was President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, by 1891 a member of the Legislative Council of the Viceroy of India, and by 1897 a member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India. He was knighted by King George V for his services to industry and nation in 1911, becoming Baron Inchcape, a name that commemorated the Inchcape Rock, off Arbroath and Strathnaver in Scotland. Lord Inchcape would acquire a controlling interest in Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. and become president of BI’s primary competitor, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company or P&O. At the time of the merger, BI owned, operated or managed some 526 ships.


A much more plain staircase in the newly restored building
William Mackinnon died in 1893 at the age of 70 without any male heirs and was succeeded first by James Macalister Hall and then his nephew Duncan Mackinnon. After Duncan’s retirement, since both his sons had been killed in the war, the firm was headed by Lord Inchcape, who was now its longest surviving partner. Under his guidance, BI merged with P&O, but would continue under its own identity until 1st October 1971, when a major restructuring of the P&O Group led to BI’s businesses being redistributed among various P&O divisions. The last ship to sail with BI livery was the SS Uganda which sailed into the Falkland Islands in 1982 as a hospital ship. Meanwhile 1947 brought independence to India, but Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. continued as agents for BI until 1956 when BI’s operational headquarters moved to London. The closure of the Suez Canal that same year eroded much of Mackinnon Mackenzie’s business. In 1978, P&O, who held 40% of the equity capital of the company decided to sell these shares. By now, Mackinnon Mackenzie was in financial freefall. In 1990 the company’s two remaining ships were sold off and by 1992 Mackinnon Mackenzie closed down all shipping related activities. 145 years of heritage ground to a halt. Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. still exists, with registered offices in Ballard Estate in Bombay (Mumbai) but is doing nothing more than holding property.


Grand staircase at the ground level. Note original pillars still in use.


INCHCAPE HOUSE

The building on the corner of Strand Road and Fairley Place (officially 16 Strand Road), was known as Inchcape House after Lord Inchcape (whose own home was at 22, Camac Street). The architectural style is variously described as Neo-Classical and English Renaissance. The sandstone clad frontage has a rusticated ground floor and corner bays, but the thing that draws attention and admiration are the four pairs of massive columns with ionic capitals on the southern and western sides. Inchcape House was constructed between 1925-26 by Mackintosh Burn & Co.. As was the trend at the time, Mackinnon Mackenzie only occupied part of the building, while the rest was rented out to a variety of tenants. Of special note was the building’s glass dome above its central atrium.


The magnificent view from northern balcony
On November 7th, 1998, a devastating fire broke out on the second floor of Inchcape House at around 2am. Among the buildings tenants were Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), Unit Trust of India (UTI), ICI, IFCI, the Railway Recruitment Board, metro railway and eastern region’s oldest freight forwarding agency Blacker & Company. Firefighters rescued 130 people who were trapped inside. Five people were injured, one of them seriously and the offices of UTI and Blacker & Company were completely gutted. The building’s dome was also seriously damaged and the government declared the building’s upper floors unsound and prohibited entry. For several years after the fire, Inchcape House remained entangled in legal cases with tenants suing the landlord for damages and demanding access to their offices. Finally in 2010, Inchcape House was taken over by real estate developers Diamond Group who agreed to the condition that while they would rebuild the interiors, the façade would not be changed.


Damaged interiors of Inchcape House after the 1998 fire. Christopher Taylor Photography/Tasveer Gallery

FROM INCHCAPE HOUSE TO DIAMOND HERITAGE

The reconstruction of Inchcape House began under architect Dulal Mukherjee and conservation consultant Manish Chakraborti. The 100 crore project scooped out the interiors of the building which had been severely damaged in the fire while leaving the façade untouched. Behind the façade a modern G+14 high-rise was created with modern amenities like high speed elevators, a large underground parking lot and, crucially, a sprinkler system. When completed in 2013 this made 455,000 square feet of commercial space available to potential buyers. As I write this, almost 80% of Diamond Heritage is sold out. 


The much less glamorous northern face, still under construction in 2013
The star of the show is clearly the central atrium with a new dome above it, similar in appearance to the original dome which was damaged in the fire. On the atrium floor several of the broken pillars from the original building are displayed while intact pillars may be seen at the western end of the ground floor, around the grand staircase. The interiors are not very exciting for the architecture fan, but they are well lit and the building does have central air conditioning, high speed elevators and a modern sprinkler system, which is a rarity in Calcutta (Kolkata). Also stunning are the views that the building offers, both of the river and the Dalhousie area. The large basement car park addresses another critical problem in the Dalhousie area. But the façade not being touched has given Diamond Heritage one little quirk. The floors of the modern skyscraper inside don’t line up with the floors of the façade, since older buildings have much taller ceilings. This problem has been solved by dividing the building into two blocks – heritage and non-heritage. The heritage block is immediately adjoining the façade and has the old high ceilings. The inner non-heritage block has lower modern ceilings and therefore a higher floor count. 


The new dome above the central atrium

CONCLUSION: THE BEST THAT COULD BE DONE

The press reaction to Diamond Heritage has mostly been negative, especially from Soumitra Das at The Telegraph, who in one article stops short of saying that the fire may have been set deliberately. It is important to remember that no criminal intent has ever been proved in court. As for criticisms of the rebuilding itself, they seem somewhat divorced from the ground realities of Calcutta (Kolkata). This is a city where laws are notoriously pro-tenant and the judiciary is notoriously slow. If you have had a tenant in a building for 30 or 40 years, getting him or her to vacate or raising their rent is almost impossible. Tenancy litigation can carry on for an entire lifetime. As a result, buildings do not receive any maintenance since the financial incentive simply isn’t available. This is why many magnificent buildings that were always intended for commercial use, end up getting condemned and then demolished. This is why much of central Calcutta (Kolkata) is a tinderbox and there are major fires very regularly. In a city where heritage buildings regularly vanish, first from the heritage list and then from the face of the earth, where the mayor himself is doing his very best to have unique buildings torn down, Diamond Heritage is a rare example. Could the interiors of the building not have been restored to their original shape? Doing that would have involved much less return-on-investment for the developer, since much less floor space would have been created. This trend of leaving the façade intact while changing the interiors is now common enough all over the world for it to have a nickname – “facadism”. In the context of Calcutta (Kolkata), Diamond Heritage, in my opinion, represents the best that could be done. 


Broken pillars from the old building on display in the atrium
- By Deepanjan Ghosh

MORE HERITAGE BUILDINGS IN THE DALHOUSIE AREA




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


  • Thanks to Ayan Ghosh for helping with photography permission.
  • Thanks to Nina Basu and Surajit Hazra of Diamond Group for their cooperation.
  • Mackinnon Mackenzie fire photograph by Christopher Taylor, courtesy Tasveer Gallery


SOURCES

Bach, Brian Paul - Calcutta's Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City
Orbasli, Aylin - Tourists in Historic Towns: Urban Conservation and Heritage Management
Jones, Stephanie - Merchants of the Raj: British Managing Agency Houses in Calcutta Yesterday and Today
Munro, J. Forbes - Maritime Enterprise and Empire: Sir William Mackinnon and His Business Network, 1823-93
Lalvani, Kartar - The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise
KOLKATA HERITAGE BUILDINGS LOSING OUT TO INDISCRIMINATE RENOVATION – Livemint - Aug 24 2007
Stranded – The Telegraph - June 6, 2010
Fresh sales at UTI despite fire – Indian Express - November 10, 1998
130 rescued from building on fire – The Tribune – November 7, 1998
Strand edifice set for adaptive reuse – The Times of India – March 15, 2005
The spirit is lost – The Telegraph – August 17, 2007
Company History - Mackinnon Mackenzie & Company Ltd. - The Economic Times
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