Strolling through the massive complex of shops and offices, the musty smells of books, cookies and polished jewellery intermingle in the weary lanes of India’s oldest shopping mall.
The dimly-lit and barely-peopled space is a structure frozen in time – step inside, and you’ll be taken back to the ‘90s. This is Spencer Plaza, or Spencer, once the darling of Mount Road, and now an artefact competing against swankier new malls.
Spencer, built in 1863, was established by Charles Durant and JW Spencer on Anna Salai, then known as Mount Road, in the Madras Presidency.
The property originally belonged to Spencer & Co Ltd which opened the first Departmental store in the Indian subcontinent in 1895.
The original Spencer department store in 1863 (Metblogs.com)
The store had over 80 individual departments. After a few years, Eugene Oakshott, who owned Spencer's, shifted the department store to a new building, built in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.
The building, designed by WN Pogson, was destroyed in a fire in 1983. The present Spencer Plaza was built on the same site, measuring about 10 acres and was opened in 1991. Spread across a million square feet, the mall was developed by the Mangal Tirth Estate Limited in January 1993
Spencer grew to be one of the most beloved hangout spots for Chennai’s young and old, and formed the entry point of discussion on the advent of “western culture” in the city.
But there was no denying the inclusiveness of the space. Queuing up for softy ice creams, jaywalking through bookstores and lazing around the basement, a tribute to the Indo Saracenic style of the past – the blaze of 1983 took away none of it’s warm, old-timey charm.
The 1914-published “Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources” confirms that, “A stroll through an almost interminable succession of finely fitted and ornamented rooms in the Mount Road establishment (of Spencer & Co.) reveals such a remarkable assortment of all kinds of goods that one is bewildered at the quantity and variety…”
Spencer's Plaza's current facade (Ashwin Kumar / Wikimedia Commons)
But the setbacks came hard and fast. Malls mushroomed across the city in a span of 3 years and many major brands and retailers moved their businesses out in the blink of an eye.
The power crisis lasting from 2011 to 2013 aggravated the situation as the mall was unprepared for the many power cuts. This was one of the biggest hits to the Plaza, as it’s air-conditioned corridors were once the preferred destination to beat Chennai’s oppressive heat.
Modernisation of facilities became far more difficult. In months, the mall turned started becoming a less popular haunt.
Today, the mall is home to antiques and handicrafts shops which expats and foreign tourists frequent. The office spaces in the mall continue to be occupied.
Every Chennaiite remembers how they each fell in love with the Plaza. V Sriram, a chronicler of the city and a columnist for The Hindu, fondly remembers the intimate atmosphere of the mall. “I remember when I was 4 or 5, there was this beautiful cake that was shaped like the entire complex, and it was a piece of art in itself,” he says.
But Sriram feels that the biggest loss is the unique architecture from the time of the Madras Presidency, that was lost in the modernization of the structure.
“Today, you have quaint coffee shops and even Higginbothams, that has retained it’s charm, and this has proven to be its biggest asset. I hear about the swanky new makeover it is going to get and the facelift for the parking space – but if the plaza had celebrated its heritage and maintained its unique architecture, it wouldn't just be India's oldest shopping mall. It would have been the most beautiful mall in all of India, something even an Ampa, an EA or a Phoenix couldn't usurp even if they tried," he says.
Image credit: Wikimedia