It was to be a flagship building and the Committee had done its homework. The plot most suited for it would have come as an epiphany as they meandered down tree-lined Esplanade Road, then conceived as a boulevard, to just that point between Esplanade Main Road and Hornby Row, immediately opposite the Frere (now Flora) Fountain.
Reverend FL Sharpin, Honorary Secretary of the Board loved it instantly, and begged “just that site on the Esplanade”—a large triangular plot of land that would imaginably expand into a college and, if the girls got lucky, into a girls’ school. And it was close enough to the Cathedral. The last was important to enable the Reverends to take religious instruction, albeit sporadically, and ensure that the choir continued to service their cathedral. The grand building would befit the cathedral and define the beauty and symmetry of this part of the Esplanade. And it would also incidentally, educate choristers, orphans, and others.
Postcards: (clockwise from left) The present library for junior students; alumni Salman Rushdie visited the school in January; and the erstwhile Cathedral High School for Girls. Photographs courtesy ‘An Undefiled Heritage’
It was already May, and the heat of summer stifled, with the monsoons, a breath away. They wanted the work to commence immediately, before the impending rains; no delays. The foundation, at the very least, had to be laid, to seal the fate of the prominent site so that none other could claim it. Sharpin carefully elucidated the funding: Rs 30,000 or “thereabouts” from the sale of the Diocesan Byculla School; Rs 65,000 from the Committee itself; Rs 5,000 garnered by special appeal and equally met by the supportive Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; and all of this doubled by the Government. Thus, the construction was to commence immediately.
An Undefiled Heritage: By Mridula Sood Maluste and Viral Doshi, 349 pages,Rs 3,000.
Sharpin’s crystal-clear thinking caused bureaucratic decisions to flow swiftly and in favour of the Committee. Lt Col WA Baker, R.E. and undersecretary to the Government, replied in two weeks, offering the preferred site of 1,780 square yards, but with a caveat: “…only if a building suitable to such a prominent position can be designed for the sum available.” He added that, if the school was ultimately to become a college, the building was to be designed accordingly, with just a small portion built to suit the requirements of a high school. He ensured Rs 25,000 was provided immediately as part of the endowment fund, sufficient for the foundation. The rest would be provided “contingent on the design.”
While the design of the flagship school building is commonly attributed to Colonel James Augustus Fuller, late nineteenth century records from the Diocesan Board and correspondence reproduced alongside indicate that for design, they looked no further than the JJ School of Art, where John Adams’ popular architectural drawing class drew eager students who happily paid an extra Rs 2 per month to attend. The task of designing a venerable, Gothic school building was assigned to this amateur actor and singer, who, incidentally, was the Architectural Executive Engineer and Surveyor to the Government. After having lived for a while at the Byculla Club, Adams had moved to Little Gibbs Road near Malabar Hill, just a stone’s throw from the plot that would later hold Government House, which he would also design.
Adams swung into action—he submitted rough designs, then completed ones, and he outdid himself in this assignment to “ornament” the projecting piece of land. His design recalled a ship’s prow: the building looking outward, converging and gazing onto the fountain and the city and the sea; a decorous confection of grey stone, white borders and sunbursts of grillwork on windows and doors. By 1879, the drawings and plans were carefully assessed by Governor J. Gibbs, the Bishop of Bombay and Reverend Sharpin.
From all accounts, they were dazzled by Adams’ signature elements: the “variegated” and attractive gabled rooftop, and the emblems he liberally sprinkled across railings, borders and screens, in a style and manner favoured by friend and mentor FW Stevens. “Now, we have just inspected, on the platform some beautiful designs prepared by Mr Adams,” they acclaimed. “These designs, you will find, are not only useful, but are very graceful and appropriate, worthy of the beautiful site which has been assigned them. That site is not only airy and breezy in a place where breezes are so much wanted, but is also handy for the Cathedral, and near to the residences of the clergy.” It was important that the design celebrate the merger of three important schools to form the principal Church of England school on the island.
With the foundation laid, the Government, governing body, clergy and headmaster were eager to finish the building: the Governor himself asked impatiently why it was “taking so long.” Sharpin’s terse, defiant rejoinder was that “the extravagant design does not admit of speed…” Still, in the first year of construction, the west wing, central dome and block were built at a cost of Rs 1,32,000 and then, the rest of the school was “zealously and vigorously prosecuted to completion.”
It is entirely possible that the costs might have increased, perhaps even doubled, with the engineers and Adams giving full reign to their vainglorious creativity to ensure the building on the “best site in Bombay,” for the premier school had “features worthy of the site.”
An Undefiled Heritage is available at the office of The Cathedral & John Connon School.
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