It seems to be impossible for any passerby to miss or ignore the gracefully dignified Metropolitan Building, which stands proudly at the busy intersection of the Jawaharlal Nehru Road and SN Banerjee Road, in the heart of Calcutta. Built in 1903 with its magnificent domes raised high on a pavilion and adorned with a dignified clock tower, the building is also equipped with a semicircular arched arcade in the first floor, while the facade is ornamented with a series of projected pediments and balconies with plain columns and Corinthian capitals.
At its inception, the palatial building, considered as one of the most beautiful buildings of Calcutta, was the house of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co, the most famous and leading department stores in Calcutta, during those days.
Fondly mentioned by many as the elaborate wedding-cake structure, the splendid building was constructed by Mackintosh Burn & Co as the headquarters of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. Its magnum size, architectural beauty and above all the prominent corner position were pre-planned with the ultimate aim of attracting the attention of the possible buyers. The floor space of the building is simply huge. While 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.
Sir Robert Laidlaw, the founder of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co, was a British Liberal Party politician, elected to Parliament in 1906 and then knighted and appointed British Commissioner to the International Opium Commission, in Shanghai, in 1909. He began his business life in Hawick, in the east of the Southern Uplands of Scotland and after a few years, joined the wholesale textile trade in London. After travelling extensively in Asia, Africa and America, Laidlaw came to India in 1877 and ultimately resided in Calcutta for about 20 years. In 1882, he founded the great business house ‘Whiteaway, Laidlaw, and Co’ in Calcutta and soon opened its branches in twenty other cities in India, along with branches in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur as well as Shanghai.
In the course of time, he became the Chairman of Whiteaway & Laidlaw and was often nicknamed as the Selfridges of India, referring to the Selfridges & Co, a famous chain of high-end department stores in the United Kingdom.
Within a short time after its foundation, Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co became a favourite shopping spot for the elite society of Calcutta. From the beginning, the company adopted the give and take policy to avoid late payment by the buyers and the possibility of loss and hence earned a nickname, Right-away & Paid-for. Nevertheless, it was considered as the most stylish, luxurious and classiest department store on the other side of Suez. It became a premier department store in the early 20th century, as they used to procure items that appealed to the Europeans and the anglicized wealthy locals. Apart from importing and selling household products, they also had a very competent tailoring department. The grand outlet with its classy ambience was very much popular, especially among the junior officers. However, the high-nosed high-ranking seniors often opted to go to the more posh Army & Navy Stores, a further quarter mile away down the road.
However, the situation changed abruptly after the independence of India in 1947, when the British military personnel and civilians left India for their country. Added to the mass exodus, slowly but steadily, the Anglo-Indian families of Calcutta also started to leave the city for England, Australia or Canada. As a result, the business of Whiteaway, Laidlaw soon 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.
After nationalization of the private life Insurance Companies in 1956, The Life Insurance Corporation of India became the owner of the building, who did not take any care about maintaining the health of the building. During 1990s, it became almost dilapidated and coated with soot, with parasitical plants growing out of every nook and cranny. As the famous stained-glass atrium collapsed, a big gap appeared in the roof and rainwater started to leak through the terrace, flooding the two wooden staircases and the flats. In the meantime, though the building was in pathetic condition, the Big Bazar, a local department chain store, opened its branch on the ground floor of the building in 2007, which was once occupied by the American Center library and auditorium. Though the new outlet of Big Bazar was decorated with false ceiling to the staircase, floors and window panes and looked as if it has just emerged from wrappers, the condition of the building remained the same.
However, good senses finally prevailed, as the structure was repaired by LIC and was saved from being ruined. In 2001, it was freshly repainted with white, with its cupolas painted in golden.