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


Giv­ing Chen­nai’s his­tor­i­cal struc­tures a new lease on life.

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 In­doSaracenic 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 are 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.; amethystchen­nai.com) 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 florists, 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. An­other din­ing venue of note is Mango Tree ( 31 Jam­bu­lingam St.; fb.com/man­gotreechen­nai), 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.; theluz­house.com) 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.

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.;

kings­ley.co.in), 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 high­end de­signer Ahalya Sak­thivel’s two brands: Ahalya, for be­spoke jewelry, and Kanakavalli, which cu­rates ex­clu­sive silk saris hand-wo­ven ac­cord­ing to the Kan­ji­varam tech­nique.

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.

Op­po­site, from top: In­side the bou­tique at Amethyst; Kings­ley’s neo­clas­si­cal por­tico.

Above, from far left: Lo­cal de­signer Ahalya Sak­thivel, whose two brands have their flag­ship at Kings­ley; the breezy ve­randa at Luz House.

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