Located at 4 Esplanade Row West, the majestic and historic structure of the Town Hall is one of the most important heritage buildings of Calcutta. The main idea behind the construction of the gracefully dignified building, resembling the magnificence of the Roman Senate, was to provide a suitable place for the social gatherings of the European community of the city.
Designed by the then military architect and engineer Major General John Garstin, the foundation stone of the colossal building was laid by Lord Minto, the then Governor General of British India, on the 1st day of December 1807, with a fund of 700,000 Rupees raised from a lottery. Built in Roman-Doric style of architecture with tall columns and broad steps leading to the grand portico in the front portion, construction of the Hall was completed in 1813 and was opened to the public on 22 March 1814.The carriage entrance is at the back under a lofty covered portico. The huge two storey building, covering more than 1200 square metres was constructed with a mix of neo-classic and Palladian style. The 25 feet high ground floor, equipped with a central marble hall, has an intricate network of numerous small rooms. Originally, it was used for public meetings, receptions, balls and concerts that generally took place on the upper floor, which is boarded with teak with a thirty feet high ceiling.
At the beginning, a special committee was formed to look after the administration of the hall, adhering to the specified terms and conditions of the governing body regulated by the British Government. Restriction was imposed on public entrance, who was allowed to visit only the ground floor hall, to have a good look at the statues and the large size portrait and paintings. However, they were not allowed indiscriminate access to the upper storey. Applications for the use of the upper storey were made compulsory, to be submitted to the committee in advance.
In 1818, as some of the pillars in the upper floor pillars were suspected to be defective, John Garstin took the responsibility on his shoulders and repaired them at his own cost. Since 1862, the Town Hall was temporarily used for judicial purposes, till the Calcutta High Court started to function in it’s newly constructed building from 1872. In between, John Paxton Norman, one of the Puisne Judges, was brutally assassinated by a fanatic Muslim of the Wahabi sect., while he was coming down the steps of the Town Hall in 1871. Apart from that, in 1919, the Town Hall was used as the council chamber of the Bengal Legislative Council and the President of the Council had his chamber there. During that time, the interior of the Hall was remodeled to suit the needs of the Council. 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.
The Town Hall in Calcutta is the witness of many important meetings and discussions in its long life. As early as in 1878, the Hall witnessed a vociferous revolt against the leadership of the Brahmo leader, Keshub Chunder Sen, on the issue of the early marriage of his under-aged eldest daughter with the minor Maharaja of Cooch Behar. On 17 February 1898, a protest meeting was organized and held in the hall, when the ruling British tried to pass a Sedition Bill to silence the growing criticism of various government policies. Rabindranath Tagore, who attended the meeting, read out his speech, ‘Kantha Rodh’, boldly advocating for the freedom of speech. During the politically disturbed days of the anti Partition movement, the Town Hall became a prominent centre of the nationalist movement. Even, a massive public protest meeting headed by Surendranath Banerjea, was held in the Town Hall on 7 August 1905. Apart from that, this is the place, where the 50th and the 70th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore were celebrated in the august presence of the great poet and Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose showed his famous experiment on wireless communication at Town Hall before the public in 1898.
In the past, the Town Hall was renovated in 1897, at a cost of about 1.126 million Rupees. However, after that it remained neglected for a prolonged period. Unfortunately, after the independence of the country, the heritage building was indiscriminately used without any maintenance. There was a time, when it sheltered the Municipal Magistrate’s Office. From time to time, other branches of the Corporation were also accommodated within its premises. Even, it also sheltered the Municipal Service Commission and the West Bengal Public Service Commission for some time.
In the absence of proper maintenance, the condition of the Town Hall was deteriorating every day and became shabby and battered in the 70s.However, without a second thought, the Left Front Government of West Bengal took the drastic decision in the early 80s, to demolish this beautiful edifice of historical importance. Fortunately, the drastic attempt was shelved after strong protests from eminent persons of the city, including the late Satyajit Ray and noted city conservationist RP Gupta. Finally, with the timely intervention of the ASI in 1998 and the Calcutta High Court, this heritage building was saved from being lost forever and was renovated to its former glory to be used for public gatherings and functions.
The renovated Town Hall was opened to the public in a new look in 2002, with a fantastic museum named Kolkata Panorama nestled in it. Covering an area of 1200 square metres and dividing the museum in 19 enclaves, the panorama depicts the story of Calcutta in details 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. Duly supported with animated light and sound shows, the entire story is presented brilliantly, to make the visitors deeply involved with the recreated events of the past. In 2004, a library was opened in the building with a rich collection of rare books and journals. With all these newly added attractions, the Town Hall revived with all its magnificent glamour and dignity.
Unfortunately, the happy days of the renovated Town Hall did not last for a long time. It was discovered soon that the base of the decaying building badly needs an immediate overall renovation. PWD in consultation with IIT Roorkee for their expertise prepared a detailed scheme for restoration. However, according to IIT Roorkee, for the proper implementation of the scheme for restoration, the entire museum in the Hall needs to be vacated, which seemed to be an impossible task, without destroying the beautifully arranged museum. Nevertheless, as the question of the existence of the building was involved, the civic authority finally dismantled the unique museum, the Kolkata Panorama, which was popularly known as India's first hi-tech storytelling museum, while the restoration process in on.