No passer-by can possibly miss the splendid building standing at the crossing of the Jawaharlal Nehru Road and S.N.Banerjee Road, with its magnificent domes raised high on a pavilion, complete with a clock tower. It has a semicircular arched arcade in the first floor. The facade is ornamented with a series of projected pediments and balconies with plain columns and Corinthian capitals. The majestic palatial building, built in 1905 and known as the Metropolitan Building today, was once known as the Whiteway, Laidlaw Building, the house of Calcutta’s famous and leading departmental stores run by the famous Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co.
This elaborate, ‘wedding-cake’ structure was constructed by Mackintosh Burn & Co as the headquarters of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. Its architectural beauty, magnum size and prominent corner position were intended particularly to attract the attention of the possible buyers. The floor space of the building was huge. The ground floor and the first floor of the building housed the different departments of the store. The second and third floors were used to accommodate apartments and the offices, known as Victoria Chambers.
Robert Laidlaw founded Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Co in 1882, with branches in twenty cities in India, along with branches in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur as well as Shanghai. He became the Chairman of Whiteaway, Laidlaw and was often referred to as the Selfridges of India.
Within a very short span of time Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co became a household name in Calcutta. To avoid late payment by the buyers and the possibility of loss, they adopted the give and take policy, which earned them a nickname, Right-away & Paid-for. It was considered as the most stylishly luxurious and classiest department store on the other side of Suez. It became a premier department store in the early 20th century, buying products that appealed to Europeans and anglicized wealthy locals. They had a tailoring department, as well as importing and selling household goods. It was largely popular among the junior officers. High ranking seniors, however, often opted to go to the more posh Army & Navy Stores, further quarter mile away down the road.
After Independence in 1947, the British military men and the army of the British Civilian staff left India to return their ‘Home’. Slowly but steadily, most of the Anglo-Indian families of Calcutta also left for England or Australia. As a result, the business of firms like Whiteaway, Laidlaw became dull and dry. Yet Whiteaway continued until 1962. Later the building was acquired by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co which renamed it as Metropolitan Building.