Historic St Joseph's school in Kerala demolished after 10-yr battle to save building

The colonial era building of the first girls school in Kozhikode was demolished two weeks ago and a new building will be constructed by the school management in its place.
Historic St Joseph's school in Kerala demolished after 10-yr battle to save building
Historic St Joseph's school in Kerala demolished after 10-yr battle to save building

Convent road in Kozhikode wears an empty look without the familiar yellow school building that has been watching over the streets for at least 98 years. The colonial-era building of the St Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, the first girls' school in Kozhikode, has been razed. For conservationists and the school’s alumni, a decade-long battle has come to a bitter end with the management winning the rights to construct a new building in its place. 

The crux of the fight has been a dispute over the building's age: Activists believe the building is more than 150 years old and should be declared a protected monument. The school management, however, claims the building is only 98 years old and isn't eligible for protection. Ultimately, the school management has proven victorious. 

Over the last two weeks, the terracotta roofs, strong walls, colonnaded verandas, wooden pillars and staircases were stripped away. What remains now are chunks of yellow wall bits and wooden splinters from the floors and staircases.

“It is heart wrenching. It is like losing a part of our childhood and Kozhikode’s identity,” says Aysha Mahmood, an alumna of St Joseph’s who fought for 8 years to save the building. 

Two weeks ago, the school’s management secured a permit from the corporation to demolish the existing building and construct a new one in its place. The very next day, demolition work began and the terracotta tiles from the rooftop were pulled down. 

“We didn’t get any time to try and protest. Before we knew it, the roof of the school was gone. Now the management plans to build a glass and mortar structure in its place. They intend to build smart classes and increase space of the classrooms to accommodate more students,” says Aysha. 

For the last 10 years, the school authorities had been trying to get the colonial building razed and build a new structure. The management had even argued that the building was unsafe for the children. However, a group of the school’s alumni, along with architects Lakshmi Manohar and Abdul Hameed, had fought to save the existing building. In September 2018, the school was slated to become a protected monument after the state Cultural Affairs Department published a notice on the gazette regarding the same. 

The notice read, ‘Whereas, the Government of Kerala are of the opinion that the “St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Girls Higher Secondary School” situated at Nagaram Village, Kozhikode Taluk, Kozhikode District and more particularly described in the schedule below should be declared to be a protected monument under the provisions of the Kerala Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1968 (26 of 1959).’

The school management was able to quash this attempt by producing a government document to show that the building was actually 98 years old. The activists, however, have argued that the school is actually 156 years old. It was not constructed 98 years ago, but had only undergone renovation at that point, Aysha said. 

“As per the Kerala Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1968, a building should be over a 100 years old to be declared a protected monument. There are mentions of the St Joseph’s school in historical accounts, especially William Logan’s ‘Malabar Manual’ which proves that a part of the building was over 156 years old.  We thought we would be able to drag the fight on for the next two years and get the building declared protected once it turned a 100,” she adds. 

In late 2018, a joint meeting by conservationists, protesting alumni and the school’s management discussed the issue regarding the old building. A special team of architects had also inspected the school to check for faults. 

“The team found that that the laterite structure of the building was strong. However, unscientific ways of renovation lead to weakening of the building. For instance, the upper portion of the school was made with timber panels which deteriorates after a point. However, instead of replacing it with a fresh piece of timber, they plastered the portion. Timber and plaster do not go well and the unscientific ways of renovation lead to more plaster falling off,” says Aysha. 

The team of experts had even promised to address issues such as the need for more space in classrooms, construction of smart classrooms and other facilities without pulling down the structure. However, this failed to convince the school management. 

“There was also a lot of panic mongering with parents believing that the safety of their child was compromised due to the old building. However, even in the last 10 years, the school was functioning inside the building and every time they got building health certificates in the start of ever academic year,” says Aysha. 


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