Retracing the Charm of Old Madras Through Heritage Buildings

In the state capital of Tamil Nadu, neglected heritage buildings are getting a new lease on life.

Local designer Ahalya Sakthivel, whose two brands have their flagship at Kingsley.

India’s fourth-largest metropolitan area may have been renamed Chennai in 1996, but traces of old Madras remain in its wealth of architectural treasures. What began in 1640 as a fortified trading post of the British East India Company on a strip of coastal land—then named Madarasapatinam—evolved into the leading colonial city of South India. It was in Madras that British architects and engineers pioneered the Indo-Saracenic style, and a trove of Art Deco buildings testify to its commercial importance in the early 20th century. But these monuments to Madras have come under increasing pressure in the face of runaway urban growth. While the municipal and state governments’ disregard for preservation has meant the loss of some of the city’s most significant colonial landmarks in the past decade, a growing crop of entrepreneurs is restoring precious heritage structures and adapting them to the tastes of contemporary Chennai.

One of the movement’s trailblazers is Kiran Rao, who relocated her popular café-boutique from her grandmother’s century-old ancestral house to the central neighborhood of Royapettah eight years ago. Insulated from the din of traffic by a luxuriant garden, Amethyst (11 Whites Rd.) has revived a dilapidated 1930s godown once used for storing newsprint. Visitors here can wander a series of retail spaces comprising a pottery store, a florist, and an upper-floor boutique that offers curated apparel, jewelry, and home accessories. Downstairs, art- and antiques-strewn Wild Garden Café beckons with overstuffed sofas and a wraparound veranda, where patrons tuck into all-day breakfasts and pastas while admiring the lotus ponds dotting the lush grounds.

The breezy veranda at Luz House.

Another dining venue of note is Mango Tree (31 Jambulingam St.), which opened last March inside a charming heritage house in upscale Nungambakkam. Proprietor Chitra Ramu has retained the original doors, windows, and red-oxide flooring, while sepia photos and Chettinad-style furniture set the mood for authentic home-style Chettinad cuisine, staying faithful to the recipes of Ramu’s own mother. Standouts include deep-fried beetroot and lentil dumplings, the melt-in-the-mouth mutton dosa, and thalich idiyappam—string hoppers infused with buttermilk or coconut milk that are plated up with a delicate eggplant-based gravy. Don’t miss chef Dhanashree Anand’s inspired coconut mousse, served in a coconut shell and sprinkled with tiny nuggets of jaggery.

Tucked down a narrow lane in Mylapore, a 20-minute drive to the southeast, 250-year-old Luz House (176 Luz Church Rd.) started out as a barracks for Portuguese soldiers guarding a nearby 16th-century Baroque church, before serving as the family home of a translator for the prominent Madras-based business Parry & Co—one of the oldest in the Indian subcontinent. Buchi Babu, the father of South Indian cricket, was born and raised here, and every room is a storehouse of memories. Generations of the sporting family lived and laughed within its walls, raised horses in the stables, and played tennis on its courts. Today, sixth-generation owner Abhimanyu Prakash Rao, Buchi Babu’s great-grandson, has made a determined effort to return the house to its former glory.

Inside the boutique at Amethyst.

Luz House now hosts weddings, yoga classes, photography exhibitions, and small concerts; there are plans for a future café or restaurant, plus luxury lodgings upstairs. Inside, the combination of planters’ chairs and other antique furniture, red-oxide floors, and distinctive Madras roofing—achieved with the use of broken bricks and lime mortar supported by teak beams—makes the property a popular filming location for Tamil movie directors.

One of Chennai’s most eye-catching heritage conversions is Kingsley (60 Spur Tank Rd.), a former Chettiar bungalow set back from the banks of the Cooum River. Replete with a circular driveway and a garden planted with mango and jackfruit trees, the house serves as the flagship location for high-end designer Ahalya Sakthivel’s two brands: Ahalya, for bespoke jewelry, and Kanakavalli, which curates exclusive silk saris hand-woven according to the Kanjivaram technique.

Kingsley’s neoclassical portico.

It was by chance that Sakthivel found the century-old colonial-style house, then in a sad state with a sagging roof and badly cracked walls. Within days, she roped in her architect cousin Gayathri Selvan and interior designer Elamma Kuruvilla, an old friend, to bring her vision to life. Kingsley opened in 2015 after an extensive restoration lasting just five months; newly installed features included the landscaping, checkered marble flooring throughout the main house, and a sympathetic extension housing the Kanakavalli boutique. Given its airy, high-ceilinged halls and tranquil garden setting, Kingsley has also become a natural venue for occasional concerts—a show of the enthusiasm among 21st-century Chennaiites for the architecture and atmosphere of old Madras.  

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Madras Makeover”).

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