During the early days of Calcutta, the East India Company was badly in need of a spacious building for its writers (clerks) to carry out various administrative paperwork and storage spaces to keep their records safely. At this juncture, the idea of the Writers’ Building was conceived by Governor-General Warren Hastings. Finally, the building was constructed on a plot of land, which was once occupied by St Anne’s church, battered by Siraj-ud-Dowlah. In 1777, this plot along with the adjoining plot was granted to an Architect, Thomas Lyon, for the construction of a building, primarily to house the clerks of the East India Company. At the time of its completion in 1780, the Writers’ Building was the first three-storey building in Calcutta. It occupied one side of the Tank Square, had 19 residential quarters, each with three sets of windows, and was undoubtedly a bit of an eyesore.
However, everything changes with time and necessity. The Fort William College was opened in 1800, to train the clerks (writers) in Oriental languages. Later, the College moved to this building and functioned here for 20 years during which time a hostel for 32 students, exam hall, library and teaching rooms were added. The original plan of Thomas Lyon was also modified to accommodate the Government Engineering College. In 1821, the facade was dressed up with a 128 feet long portico in the central bay, supported by beautiful 32 feet high iconic columns on the first and the second floor. The periods between 1879-1906 saw the addition of two new blocks, accessible by impressive iron staircases.
Meanwhile, apart from expanding their business, the East India Company was tightening its grip to rule all of India. However, after the so called revolt by the company’s army in 1857, Queen Victoria took over the power to rule India, replacing the Company. At that time a new secretariat was needed in Calcutta and Writers’ was picked for expansion.
The Writers’ Building acquired its Greco-Roman look with the installation of a number of beautiful statues. Its majestic pediment in the centre is crowned with the statue of Minerva. The terrace is also adorned with several other statues including four clusters of statues, namely Justice, Commerce, Science and Agriculture with the Greek gods and goddesses of those four streams Zeus, Hermes, Athena and Demeter respectively. Apart from that, there are beautiful statues of Heba, the goddess of youth, Diana, the goddess of hunting, Psyche, the goddess of soul and others.These statues, sculpted by William Fredric Woodington were added in 1883.
Before independence, Writers’ had a large courtyard with seven blocks. By 1970, the number of blocks was increased to 13. However, the main block, including the rotunda and five main blocks, are declared as heritage structures.
The Writers’ Building is the silent witness of many political ups and downs. Many important political decisions were taken in this gigantic building in its long life spanning more than 236 years. Early in its life, it housed clerks of the East India Company. In the 19th Century, when Calcutta became the Capital of British India, it served as the secretariat of Bengal state. It also experienced flashes of the Indian independence movement when a notorious British official was assassinated here by Benoy, Badal, and Dinesh on 8th December, 1930.
However, unplanned extensions of the building over the years ended up creating a confusing network of thirteen interconnected blocks. Added to it, years of negligence and lack of proper maintenance took its toll. As a result, the situation became precarious day by day.
The Writers’ Building housed the office of the Chief Minister of West Bengal until 4 October 2013, when most of the departments had to move out to “Nabanna”, a building in Howrah to facilitate the much deserved renovation of the age old Writers’ Building.