The massive brick red building of the Standard Life Assurance, widely known as Standard Building, is situated at 32 and 32A BBD Bag, at the southern corner of the square and extended up to Red Cross Place, formally known as Wellesley Place. The enormous building was designed and constructed under the supervision of the famous Bombay based architect Frederick William Stevens, who also designed the Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Bombay, renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Though the building is not as famous as the neighbouring Writers’ Building or the General Post Office, located on the other sides of the water body, it Is considered as one of the most beautiful buildings constructed during the British rule in India. The process of construction of the structure began in 1894 and was completed in 1896.
Though the name of the building suggests that once it belonged to the Standard Life Assurance Company, but originally it housed the Life Insurance Company of Scotland, established in Edinburgh on 23 March in 1825. Subsequently, by Royal assent, the name of the company was changed to the Standard Life Assurance in 1832.
During the early days, the British insurance companies were not at all interested to cover those people, who had decided to accept a job in India. In fact, they were very much reluctant to allow their policyholders even to visit the country, due to the very high mortality rate of the Europeans in the country. It was really a big problem for the British and the other Europeans, as they found it tough to adjust with the terrible hot, humid and dusty tropical weather and succumbed to diseases like malaria, cholera & black fever at a very early age.
However, despite the related risk factor, the Standard Life Assurance took the situation as an opportunity and started to build up their business aggressively.
They established the Colonial Life Assurance Company in 1846, designed to handle business in the British Colonies, especially in India and consequent to the merger of those two companies, all Standard business in the East was vested under the control of the Calcutta office. As the business started to grow steadily, the company decided to set up its own office building in the city of Calcutta. Accordingly, a big plot of land was acquired at the southern corner of the Tank Square (renamed Dalhousie Square) and finally, the massive Standard Life Assurance Building came up in the city in May 1896.
It is not usual for a building to have two addresses. However, it is very much evident that the three-storey colossal building consists of two separate wings joined by two bridges across the little known Vansittart Row, one of the oldest lanes in the city. Set in Grey-brown sandstone and crowned with the cupola and the weather vane on the top, the building seems to have been transplanted to Calcutta direct from England and there was a day, when it completely dominated the stretch, while the low-profile Dalhousie Institute across the street was its only competitor. Though not intended to eclipse the GPO (1868) or the Central Telegraph Office (1876), the building with its multi domed tower on the northeast corner was the loftiest structure around the huge square area that was neither governmental nor religious in its purpose.
However, the supreme artistry of the structure does not lie in the admirable corner tower, it is in the impressive stack of arches, which connect the two parts of the building. The assemblage is crowned with a triangular pediment worthy of ancient Rome, decorated with allegorical figures based on the biblical parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1- 13). The parable has a clear theme of warning for all about the Day of Judgment.
Apart from that, the main arch is branded with the Company’s name in block letters and there are two more figures at the walls, just below the archway and the main entrance of the building. On the left is a young lady carrying a lamp, signifying power and vitality, the gift of life, while there is a Grim Reaper, bearing scythe and skull on the right. The two figures symbolizing life and death are the actual official logo of the company.
Unfortunately, due to non maintenance and negligence, the condition of the age-old gigantic building was gradually becoming deplorable since the 1970s. Being the core business area, every day the exhaust fumes of countless vehicles thundering past the building during the office hours grimed the surface and eaten into the sandstone of this elegant structure. Roots of wild plants struck roots into the brick and mortar and had thrived unbridled. The lift of the building became non functional and some portions of the building were abandoned as unsafe for use.
Fortunately, as the structure has been enlisted as a Heritage building of the city, the beautiful old lady of Dalhousie Square, the Standard Life Assurance Building, has recently given a good scrub to remove the layers of grime and a coat of paint to reveal her youthful loveliness. After careful cleaning it was revealed that most of the decorative figures are in good shape. It was found that only the floor of the building has developed cracks and the walls are almost intact. The roof on the east side has already been treated with APP membrane to prevent leakage, while the untouched western side of the building is in a very poor condition.