HERITAGE BUILDINGS OF COLONIAL CALCUTTA - Standard Life Assurance Building
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HERITAGE BUILDINGS OF COLONIAL CALCUTTA – Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building

Located at the corner of BBD Bag (South) and Red Cross Place (formally Wellesley Place) and situated at 32 and 32A BBD Bag, the Standard Life Assurance Building – better known as Standard Building, was designed under the supervision of Frederick William Stevens. Frederick William was the consulting architect of the insurance company, who had also designed the Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai, renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The construction of the building began in 1894 and was completed in 1896. Stevens, who died in Mumbai of malaria, was a high priest of the Indian Gothic style, but there is no trace of that style in the Standard Building. Instead, it flaunts some of the most beautiful relief sculpture anywhere.

The building once housed the Life Insurance Company of Scotland, which was established in Edinburgh on 23rd March in the year 1825. The name of the organization was changed to The Standard Life Assurance in 1832, by Royal assent. The British insurance companies were reluctant to allow their policyholders to travel, let alone live in the colonies, due to the very high mortality rate. And indeed this was a problem in India as the British and Europeans couldn’t cope with the heat and dust of the tropical weather and succumbed to deceases like malaria, cholera & black fever at a very early age. However Standard Life Assurance saw opportunity in this and aggressively built up the business. In the year 1846, the company had set up the ‘Colonial Life Assurance Company’ (the Colonial), which was specifically designed to handle business in the British Colonies and India. In 1846, The Standard’s association with India had begun with the founding of the ‘Colonial’ and all Standard business in the East came under the control of the Calcutta office, consequent to the merger of the two companies. Later, as the business grew, the company decided to set up its own office building. Accordingly a plot at the corner of Dalhousie Square (South) and Red Cross Place (formally Wellesley Place) were acquired and the fine building was constructed between February 1894 & May 1896.

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Building is noticeable because of the cupola and the weather vane on top of it. As its two addresses suggest, the three-storeyed building has two wings joined by two bridges across Vansittart Row. Set in Grey-brown sandstone, this is yet another British commercial building which seems to have been transplanted to Bengal from England. The multi domed tower dominates the building’s North-East corner. The detailing is exquisite, from the multi-domed corner tower, to the figures on the triangular pediment, the balustrade parapet and the cherubs with their musical instruments in the upper windows. The entrance at the north is through an arched gateway with a triangular pediment at the top. The building is decorated with the logo of the standard life’s which is based on the biblical parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1- 13). The parable has a clear theme – be prepared for the day of Judgment. There are two more figures at the walls, just below the archway and the main entrance of the building. One at the left of the archway is a young lady carrying a lamp and Grim Riper carries a skull at the right. The two figures represent Life and Death respectively. This is the actual official logo of the company. Unfortunately, these two figures are obstructed by the telegraph pole and the telegraph wires.

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building

Sadly enough, in the recent past the building was in an extremely run down condition. The exhaust fumes of thousands of vehicles thundering past the building during the office hours grimed the surface and eaten into the sandstone of this elegant structure. Parasites struck roots into the brick and mortar and in the absence of any effort to remove them, they had luxuriated. The lift was not in working condition. The iron staircase is sturdy but is in need of repairs at places. Some of the portions have already been abandoned.

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building - plaque

But there is a silver lining too, the structure has been declared as a Heritage building. The most beautiful old lady of Dalhousie Square, the Standard Life Assurance Building, is at long last being given a good scrub to remove the layers of grime, and a lick of paint to reveal her youthful loveliness. The building may be ground plus three, but it is as high as a six-storeyed structure. So it is difficult to repair the weather vane on top of the tower, as was the case with the rotating angel on the Victoria Memorial Hall dome. Fortunately, only the floor has developed cracks and the walls are almost intact. The roof on the eastern side has already been treated with APP membrane to prevent leakage. The western side of the building is almost untouched and is in a poor state. Most of the figures are still in good shape. Restoration of these figures, which are basically delicate artwork, is extremely difficult, as the skilled masons and the expert workmen competent in these kinds of work is very rare.

Location Standard Life Assurance Building

Standard Life Assurance Building location

Dibyendu Banerjee
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.

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