KARACHI: Last year in April, Mayor of Karachi Wasim Akhtar announced that the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) was ready to hand over the management and maintenance of the historic Frere Hall and its gardens to an 18-member Guardian Board for a five-year (extendable) period.
An MoU was to be signed between the City Council and the board’s chairman Shahid Feroz. And on Nov 30, 2018, the City Council officially handed over the building to the board. The board, comprising eminent citizens (such as Amin Hashwani, Durriya Kazi, Ghazi Salahuddin and Shahid Abdulla) has ever since been working hard on the project and has in fact embarked upon an ambitious plan to restore some of the iconic features of the building, and to add a few new ones to enhance its cultural value.
‘The star of Asia’
Talking to Dawn, chairman of the board Mr Feroz said, “Karachi has been neglected when it comes to architecture. A lot of architecture has been defaced. Luckily, Frere Hall is the only place, despite being iconic, that has not been tampered with. Ninety per cent of Karachiites are convinced that it used to be a church which has been converted. No one understands its history, whereas the history of the hall is critical to comprehend. This was not only the first town hall of the city but the British had built it with a lot of passion because they had conceived Karachi to be the star of Asia.”
‘Karachi has been neglected when it comes to architecture’
The board wants to make sure that Frere Hall is fully protected. In that regard, restoration, revival and an additional plan to make a library for citizens is under way. The existing library, members of the board think, is not adequate in terms of scale or being user-friendly. Therefore, the suggestion is to create another library in the compound, in a discreet way, which merges or hides into the landscape. It will be a modern, user-friendly facility. This will be done without touching the building because Frere Hall is a protected heritage structure.
Over the years, a great many precious objects and artefacts have been stolen from the Frere Hall premises. They include a number of paintings and seraphs that were an integral part of a fountain (built in 1890) named after the renowned Parsi philanthropist Eduljee Dinshaw. Mr Feroz and his colleagues also intend to reproduce them.
This sounds promising, especially bearing in mind the historicity of this work of architecture. Frere Hall is Karachi’s first neo-Gothic piece of stonemasonry. It was constructed to honour the services of Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who became commissioner of Sindh in 1850 and 12 years later, governor of Bombay. He is accredited with many accomplishments, one of which is imparting a “modern” look to Sindh.
The building is made with buff, dark, grey and red stones, with voussoirs of pointed arches and a pitched roof. This means the challenge is twofold: its historic significance and architectural grandeur need to be preserved.
Mr Feroz is hopeful that it’s going to happen. He feels, though it is still a work in progress, a large amount of money –– between Rs600 million and Rs1 billion –– is required for the project. The major chunk of the amount will be spent on restoration and retrieval because some of its parts have been damaged extensively. Then the landscape right now is fairly unsightly. It should be integrated into a contemporary landscape so that it becomes pleasing to the eye.
To the question raised from certain people about too much focus of restoration workers being on district South of the city, Mr Feroz responded that it’s cliché to crib about it. “Karachi [in its early days] used to be district South. The rest came later,” he argued, adding one has to start with something that’s iconic and manageable. “We need to decide whether to leave it like that or celebrate it.”
The board has already undertaken important work. It was significant, first and foremost, to determine the things that could be simulated or reproduced. The vegetation challenges have also been addressed. “Now there is not a single bush which is not mapped or documented. On April 12, we will have a major event to unveil the restoration plan. The idea is to give back to the city because we have memories that we can relate to,” Mr Feroz added.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019