Old wine, new bottle: How Chennai's old houses are getting a makeover

The next time you’re dining, look around you. A slice of Chennai’s history might be on the menu too

Rehna Abdul Kareem Published :  13th October 2017 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  13th October 2017 06:00 AM

If walls could talk, they would describe the houses of Madras as colonial beauties with a charming history filled with extraordinary anecdotes. From Buchi Babu, the father of South Indian cricket, to Diwan Bahadur Nageshwara Iyer, the chief engineer to the Government of India — historical bungalows in the city are now cafes, bistros and cultural spaces. 

Chennai constants 

We know of the old favourites, like Amethyst and Chamiers, which have stood the test of time and established themselves in the city’s cultural fabric. Mathangi Srinivasamurti of Chamiers says they challenged time and trends to stay relevant in the city, since they opened in 2004.

“We tried our best to retain the old house, but of course, we made necessary changes too,” says Mathangi. Amethyst, on the other hand, opened in the year 2000 at the 100-year-old Sundar Mahal in Gopalapuram, in an attempt to restore the ancient haveli. Since then, both cafes have built a steady following of expats and city folk visiting for high tea and scones. 

Unravelling history 

There are a few more buildings in the city that were renovated and revived recently. Three-month old Kimberly House is one of them; a Tamil-European restaurant that was previously owned by the Late Diwan Bahadur Shri Nageswara Iyer, the chief engineer to the Government of India and architect of the Tirupati-Tirumala Ghat Roads.
Karthy Lakshmanan and Jaya-krishnan Madan (a direct descendent of the actual owner), founders of Kimberly house, explain in detail about the house’s previous tenants. “D Gannon and Dunkerly were the contractors that built the house,” says Karthy. “On the blueprint, we found the details ‘1948, Harrington Road, Kimberly Gardens’ scribbled on the side. We called a few historians to check this, but didn’t get anything concrete. So we named it Kimberly House. In 1954, Captain Dr AN Ramanthan, his son, moved in to the house.” 

Karthy gives us a character sketch of the house and says that architecturally, the core design has been retained. Stained glass that adorns the walls of the house were retained, and was the brass bell at the entrance. It is interesting to note that the house has three types of flooring: mosaic, red-oxide finish and cement. Karthy even points out intricate details of how the corner of the house, where two walls meet, was built with a running curve (after the 1970s, it was built at a right angle) to avoid accumulation of dust. The inner walls are 15 inches thick as opposed to modern designs of nine inches. 
“While constructing the house, Diwan Bahadur told the devasthanam that all he wanted as remuneration was his petrol bills reimbursed,” says Karthy with a smile. Another interesting tidbit is that R Venkatraman, then President of India, studied with AR Ramanathan at Voorhees College, Vellore, and once visited the house.

A Madras redux  

Luz House in Mylapore has history dating back to the 19th century, with Moddaverapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu, a primary translator for the British. The house served as barracks for the Portugese armed forces from whom Naidu had bought the property from. However, it was here in 1868 that Venkata Mahipathi Naidu, famously known as Buchi Babu and the father of South Indian cricket, was born. Luz House is now a venue for weddings, photography shows and yoga classes. Abhimanyu Prakashrao, a sixth generation proprietor of the house and director, has put in all efforts to make sure 
this 250-year old stays maintained. 

If you walk into Desi Di, the Punjabi restaurant in Perambur, you wouldn’t easily recognise that it’s an 80-year old structure. Recently renovated, the restaurateurs Shriram, Suresh and Rajesh converted the once-dilapidated building into the swanky joint, Desi Di. Another addition to the list is Mango Tree in Nungambakkam, where Chettinad architecture is kept alive. Chitra Ramu of Mango Tree, who’s an advocate of Chettinad food as well, has retained pretty much everything about the house including the doors, the red oxide floors and a banyan tree outside for company, making it a true Chettinad dream.