The St Joseph’s Girls School is one of the last standing examples of the city's charming colonial-era architecture.

History in ruins A 156-year-old school building in Kozhikode battles for survival
news Human Interest Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 12:41

The bell rings and little kids in blue pinafores tumble out of classes. They run through the colonnaded verandahs and the arches, and down the wooden staircases of the old yellow building they call school.

For 156 years now, the St Joseph’s Girls Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, a colonial heritage building located in the heart of Kozhikode, has withstood the test of time and the reckless urbanization the city around it has seen. 

With its sloping terracotta roofs, symmetrical arches, twin pillars and breezy verandahs, the building is one of Kozhikode’s last standing reminders of Kerala’s charming colonial-era architecture.

“The school was founded in 1862 by Mother Veronica, who also founded the Sisters of the Apostolic Carmel, a religious institute dedicated to female education. Mother Veronica lived and worked as the Mother Superior of the convent, and was the headmistress of the school until she moved back to France in 1864 and never returned. Besides being, perhaps, one of the only buildings in India where Mother lived, St Joseph’s is also the first school for girls in all of Malabar,” said Aysha Mahmood, a social activist and alumna of the school.

What was once a campus comprising only of colonial buildings, many of the structures gave way to soulless modern architecture as urbanization caught up with Kozhikode. Today what’s remaining are the two wings – the convent with the centuries-old chapel attached to it and the school itself.

“If you visit the campus now, you can see that swanky structures have risen all around it and surrounded the old school building. These serve as the boarding house and library to the school and convent,” said Aysha.

The thick yellow walls of the school, one of the last surviving structures, have faithfully sheltered generations of women in Kozhikode, oblivious to the changing times. 

For how long though? This remains a major question with the school management discussing whether or not to pull down the structure to make way for a modern glass building.

“We fear that this building that we’ve grown up in, like all the others in the campus, will get the chop soon. The management has been discussing this for over two years now. They want bigger classrooms to accommodate students and extra floors for labs. The class strength used to be 40 when we studied; now it has increased to 63 and the kids don’t have enough space to sit. The teachers too can’t walk through the rows as the benches are too close set,” says Lakshmi Manohar, an architect and urban designer, also an alumna of the school.

Fearing what will become of their beloved school, several alumni and heritage conservationists are putting up a fight to counter the management’s decision.

“They (the management) claim that the building isn’t sturdy. However, this cannot be ascertained unless a study of the structure is done by experts. We have asked exactly for this. A group of structural engineers from NIT volunteered to assess and study the stability of the structure; however the management did not even allow them inside the school ground,” Aysha claims.

According to Lakshmi, the outside of the building looks relatively well-preserved, but the interiors have seen years of neglect and poor maintenance.

“The plaster is peeling and, in many places, you can see the laterite used to build the school. There are also issues with the woodwork (the roofs and staircases), which have become rickety over time. Some of the doors too need replacement. But these are minor issues and can be easily fixed,” says Lakshmi

What’s more a matter of concern, according to her, is the management’s past efforts to renovate the building.

“They have used concrete to fill up cracks in the laterite, and even in the wooden floors and roofs. This is thoroughly unscientific and even dangerous as concrete bits can fall out when children run down the staircases,” she said.

The alumni fighting for their beloved school have suggested several alternatives and brought on board many organizations for their cause.

“The main issue is that although the school is old, it isn’t yet recognized by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) as a heritage building. So the management has some power over the structure. We have brought INTACH, the organization dedicated to heritage and conservation, on board. Further, we will be meeting with KK Mohammed, the former director of ASI, to try and get the organization to take up our cause,” Aysha said.

Trying to meet the school’s demands

The alumni aim to arrive at an ideal solution, which can also accommodate the demands of the school.

“The current campus is really small and there’s not much land to build another annexe for labs and classrooms. However, we are trying our best to ascertain the strength of the building and its foundation, the pillars and beams. This way, we can convince the management and, if the structure is strong enough, we will be able to build one more floor one top,” says Lakshmi.

The disappearing buildings of Calicut

Picture credits: Aroon Photos/Facebook

Over the past few years, some of the most iconic buildings in the city of Kozhikode have been razed to the ground for varied reasons.

“The most prominent one among this was the Wheat House – a historic building which housed a weaver’s society founded by a German. Over the years, the weaver’s society gave way to a restaurant which ran for many years. However, in 2002, the structure was knocked down to build a shopping complex,” says Aysha.

Another prominent landmark that was lost is the Hazuri Kacheri, the court of the Zamorins who ruled the land for many years.

“In its place is the new LIC building. Now, there are talks of Asoka Hospital, a lovely heritage building, being pulled down by the government to widen the road. Some people are protesting, but not much can be done about it. And little by little, we are wiping out the historic landmarks of this great land to herald the birth of a brand-new, soulless, urban Kozhikode,” she adds.

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