The foundation stone of the Town Hall of Calcutta was laid by Lord Minto, the then Governor General of British India, on 1st December 1807. Built in the Doric style of architecture with steps leading to a grand portico in the front portion, construction of the Hall was completed in 1813 and was opened to the public on 22nd March, 1814. This sophisticated exercise in Palladian architecture was designed by the then military engineer Colonel Garstin. The design of the structure represents a mix of neo-classic and Palladian style, said to be in imitation of the architecture of the majestic magnificence of the Roman Senate. The two storied building covers more than 1200 square meters. It is an emblem of pride and civic celebration of Bengal, the cost of which was realized through a lottery in which the people of Calcutta donated generously. In fact, during those days there was no proper social gathering place for the Britishers working in Calcutta, and the Town Hall was constructed mainly to serve the purpose.
Initially, the hall was placed under a committee. The public was allowed to visit the ground floor hall to see the statues and the large size portrait paintings, but random and indiscriminate access to the upper storey was prohibited. Applications for the use of the upper storey for social gatherings were to be submitted to the committee for consideration.
Some of the pillars in the upper floor were found to be defective in 1818, which were personally repaired by Colonel Garstin himself at his own cost. The Hall came under the management of the municipal authority in 1867. It was temporarily used for judicial purposes in the 1870s, when the present building of the High Court was under construction. It also witnessed the horrible murder of John Paxton Norman, one of the Puisne Judges, when he was brutally assassinated by a fanatic Muslim of the Wahabi sect., while coming down the steps of the Town Hall in 1871.
Most of the marble statues of the Town Hall were shifted to the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1814. In 1919, the Hall was used as the council chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council. The President of the Council also had his chamber in the Town Hall. Subsequently, the Legislative Council moved to its new building in 1931. During the Second World War, a Rationing Office was temporarily opened in the Hall.
There was a time, when the Town Hall was converted into the Municipal Magistrate’s Office. Other branches of the Corporation were also accommodated within its premises. For some time, it also sheltered the Municipal Service Commission and the West Bengal Public Service Commission. In 1975, with the exception of the busts of Greenlaw and Palmer, the remaining marble busts, along with some portrait paintings, were moved to the Victoria Memorial Hall. The rest numbers of portrait paintings had also been shifted to the Central Municipal Office building, except the portrait paintings of Ryan and Nott. Gradually this magnificent building with rich heritage was sunk into oblivion.
The Town Hall has witnessed many social and political events of the Country. In 1878, the Hall witnessed a vociferous revolt against the leadership of the Brahmo leader, Keshub Chunder Sen on the issue of his eldest daughter’s marriage with the minor Maharaja of Cooch Behar. In 1898, when the Government tried to pass a Sedition Bill to silence the growing criticism of various government policies, a protest meeting was organized and held in this hall on 17th February, 1898. Rabindranath Tagore was present in the meeting and read out a speech, Kantha Rodh, wherein he boldly advocated for freedom of speech. In the days of the anti Partition movement, the Town Hall became a prominent centre of the nationalist movement. On August 7, 1905, a massive public protest meeting headed by Surendranath Banerjea, was held in the Town Hall. Apart from that, the Hall also proudly hosted some memorable social events like the 50th and 70th birth anniversary celebration of Rabindra Nath Tagore in the memorable presence of the great poet.
Following the independence, the beautiful building was neglected for a pretty long time. In the absence of proper maintenance, it became shabby and battered. In the early 80s, the Left Front Government of West Bengal even decided to demolish this beautiful edifice of historical importance. However, the drastic attempt was shelved after strong protests from eminent persons, including the late Satyajit Ray and noted city conservationist RP Gupta.
In 1998 by the timely intervention of the ASI and the Calcutta High Court, this heritage building was saved from further damage and ultimate destruction. It was renovated to its former glory, and is now used for public gatherings and functions. In 2002, a museum named Kolkata Panorama, was opened to the public in a new look in the renovated Town Hall. Covering an area of 1200 square metres, the museum is divided in 19 enclaves. It depicts the story of Calcutta from the perspective of its social, political & socioeconomic history, the turbulent story of freedom movement, along with the city’s contribution in the fields of education, literature, music, performing art, science and technology. The story is told with the help of animated light and sound shows, to make the visitors involved with the recreated events of the past. In 2004, a library of rare books and journals was also opened. Today, with the revived magnificent glamour and dignity, Town Hall of Calcutta is recognized as one of the prestigious landmarks of the city.
However, in all probability, the historic Town Hall building of Calcutta is soon going to be enlisted in Legend of the lost. The base of the decaying building badly needs an overall renovation. PWD in consultation with IIT Roorkee has already prepared a detailed scheme for restoration of and renovation of the Town Hall. IIT Roorkee has opined that, for the proper restoration work, the entire museum in the Hall needs to be vacant. But the proposal seems to be an impossible task, without destroying the beautifully arranged museum.
Recently, Member Mayor-in-Council (Parks & Gardens) Debasish Kumar said, “shifting of all the things in the museum is an uphill task as most of the exhibits in the 200-year-old building constructed during the British era are theme based. We can remove the objects from the museum, but random removing of things related to the theme is not at all feasible.”