Kolkata, India – For almost a century, the three-storey Old Kenilworth Hotel, the second oldest hotel in Kolkata, stood elegantly on a tree-lined street in the city centre, just around the corner from the United States consulate.
It played host to countless diplomats and politicians who stayed there.
One early morning in March last year, city residents woke up to discover that the hotel’s gate had been barricaded.
Private developers had ordered the bulldozing. They were constructing a 62-storey residential tower on an adjacent plot.
According to local news reports, a consortium of four private developers obtained a permit from the city to proceed with the project, despite heritage laws that prohibit external changes to the building, let alone its demolition.
“We told [protesters] to take the matter to court.
“Conservation and preservation work in cities like London, Penang and Malacca have shown that architectural wealth can be conserved for adaptive reuse and for tourism to generate revenue,” said GM Kapur, state convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.
Some property owners are also blamed for allowing centuries-old structures to rot and crumble, making it easier for developers to show cause for demolition.
“Citing human safety as a key reason for demolition is something that one can rarely debate about. But the real motivation is obviously real estate benefit over tenant interests,” said Kamalika Bose, heritage preservation planner at Heritage Synergies India.
Amit Chaudhuri, author and founder of Calcutta Architectural Legacies
Last October, a century-old house that belonged to noted Sanskrit scholar Gurupada Haldar was also torn down.
Police and conservationists tried to intervene, but by then it was too late.
Recent developments are slowly altering the cityscape.
“In Calcutta [old name of Kolkata], there is no clear idea of why buildings need to be conserved and what ne to be conserved. That the entire city is a site of valuable architectural heritage, was not being recognised,” said Amit Chaudhuri, an author and the founder of Calcutta Architectural Legacies.
David Purdy, the former owner of the hotel, recalled the challenges he faced in securing approval for basic upkeep and maintenance.
I was shocked to hear that it was demolished,” he said.
Industry insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described how developers go to great lengths to circumvent conservation laws, and are willing to pay bribes to delist or downgrade structures because of the value of the land that heritage structures are built on.
A dilapidated mansion-style building from 1919 that has been converted into a post office; detailed Indo-Corinthian pilaster work and wooden Venetian windows can be seen on its facade [Neha Banka/Al Jazeera]
The Palace Court is an opulent urban housing complex typical of the early 20th century.
“The landlords are trying to evict tenants in a way that they don’t get into legal trouble,” said Agarwal.
The owners want to “pressure tenants to leave, he continues, by not allowing them to make even the smallest of repairs in their homes.
“The fire escape got corroded some time back and fell down, but he isn’t repairing it,” Agarwal said, referring to one of the landlords. “If there is a fire, people won’t be able to escape.
The Palace Court has been embroiled in a long-running complex legal dispute. Despite several attempts, the court-appointed landlords, Mahmud Ali, Mahmood Hasan, Mohammad Tahir, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Pradeep Chopra, a real-estate businessman, said that the charges against the industry are unjustified.
Chopra said the city should incentivise and compensate owners, pointing to cities like Ahmedabad and Mumbai, which have managed to preserve their architectural history while making space for new construction.
“If the city government continues this way, the endangered architecture of the city, whether by real-estate developers or natural elements, will be gone in three years, if not sooner,” said Chopra.
“I was in the neighbourhood of Sealdah for 40 years before I moved to another neighbourhood.
“There is a Bengali saying that ‘the inside of my heart hurts’.
It’s that same feeling. That my friend and his house are gone and they won’t come back.