Saturday, 31 May 2014

Spence's Hotel and The Treasury Building

Spence's Hotel photographed by Fredrik Fiebig, 1851. The railings and Western gate of Government House are visible on the left

Jules Verne, in his 1880 novel “The Steam House” (French - La Maison à Vapeur) wrote of a group of British colonists travelling around in a wheeled house, pulled by a steam-powered mechanical elephant. Like all his stories, it does not seem very fantastic or farfetched today. In the novel, there is a reference to a hotel in Calcutta. He writes, “I left the Spence’s Hotel, one of the best in Calcutta which I had made my residence ever since my arrival”. Started by John Spence in 1830, Spence’s Hotel was the first hotel of Asia, and was located at the corner of Esplanade Row West and Government Place West, just across the road from the Western gate of Government House (Raj Bhavan).

Treasury Building, Southern view

However, as the Empire grew, the colonial Government however, began aggressively acquiring all properties around Government House for construction of offices and residential quarters for the small army of staff that was needed to keep the government machinery functioning smoothly. The land on which Spence’s stood was taken over by the Government in the 1880’s, and Spence’s was relocated to Wellesley Place, from where it continued to operate, until it was eventually demolished.

Treasury Building, Northern view

What was once Spence’s is today a Government building. The plaque inside it’s gates tells us that it was constructed between 1882 and 1884, under the aegis of His Excellency The Marquis of Ripon, and that the government architect was a certain Mr. E.J. Martin. The massive building, extensively ornamented, occupying an entire city block, was originally meant to accommodate the Financial Department of the Government of India. It is presently home to the Principal Accountant General (audit & accounts), Government of West Bengal, and is called the Treasury Building or A.G. Bengal.

Phoenix ornamentation on a roof corner

The similarity in appearance between this building, and the more famous Writers Building, which is just down the road, is due to both being built in the same late-French Renaissance style. Along with it’s exquisite external ornamentation, the building has tall, beautifully arched windows, matching sets of Corinthian pillars and railed roofs with pair of phoenixes at intervals. Although officially built for the Financial Department, the building has, during the Raj years, housed various other departments as well, such as the Pay Office, the Revenue Department, the Records Department and the ominously named General Superintendent of Thuggee & Dacoity.

Plaque inside the building with details of construction

All these offices would pack up for the summer months, and head to Simla, with their documents and all, to operate out of the new Imperial Secretariat Building there at Gorton Castle, built in 1904. Although a 130 year old heritage building, the Treasury Building is still a fully functional government office, and hence entry and photography inside the building are not ordinarily permitted. There is no restriction on shooting it from outside though.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Spence’s Hotel photograph courtesy

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