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Project Profile


2009 Award of Merit

YMCA Students Branch

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Project Title: YMCA Students Branch

Location: 412, Dr. Bhadkamkar Marg, Mumbai, India

Size: 1,904 square meters
Cost: US$ 264,705

Responsible Party: Paul George

Heritage Architect: Vikas Dilawari

Contractor: M/s Savani Contruction Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Date of Completion: 21 January 2009

Project Synopsis

The YMCA Students Branch building occupies a corner plot in one of the densest parts of the city of Mumbai. This elegant, Neo-classical building was designed by local architects Chambers & Fritchley and built in 1910.

Originally a one-storey structure intended solely for the use of the YMCA, the building experienced a number of changes and additions over the years. Its owners added a second floor in 1947 which adhered to the existing design vocabulary but utilized a stucco rendering — known as Crete plaster — rather than the prominent ashlar masonry facing of the original ground floor. The owners later extended the building in response to growing demand for space in the inner areas of Mumbai. From 1968 the YMCA rented out the ground floor to commercial tenants to help defray the costs of maintenance and to generate funds for the YMCA’s operations.

Insensitive internal remodelling and misinformed external interventions and general decay caused the building to deteriorate over subsequent years. Tenants insensitive to the heritage value of the property made a number of modifications to the building, altering the character of some of the ground floor spaces and introducing materials out of keeping with the property’s historic character. Changes to the façade during this period included the covering-over of many ornamental details. The features most altered were the Corinthian-style columns and exterior walls, both of which were obscured by bricks and incongruous granite and marble cladding.

The restoration process began in September 2006. The project sought to balance the needs of the YMCA with the ideals of heritage conservation. Conceived as an exercise in minimal intervention, the project called for a thorough restoration of the exterior as well as improvements to the internal configuration to optimize the building’s use. These included new office space, redesigned bathrooms and lavatories and a restored meeting venue, known as the Bowen Memorial Hall.

The decision by the YMCA to restore their building was a courageous one. The area in which the building is located is subject to growing development pressure and rather than renovate many owners preferred to demolish old buildings, as these have become dilapidated over the years as a result of lack of maintenance. Rather than demolishing the old YMCA hostel, the owners chose instead to rehabilitate and repair it, giving new voice to conservation practice in the area. The project also revived the streetscape and demonstrated the positive impact of conservation projects on the neighbourhood, underlining the importance of conservation for the community’s sense of history and identity. This project also inspired the YMCA to pursue renovation works on other historic buildings in and around the area.

Conservation Approach

While YMCA Students Branch is not a listed heritage building under Indian national law or within the context of Mumbai, the building was sympathetically repaired and remodelled in accordance with internationally recognized conservation practice. The conservation process incorporated three distinct stages. The first stage consisted of detailed documentation in the form of a Fabric Status Report, which highlighted the significance of the building and assessed its heritage value while also identifying the building’s defects and their causes and suggesting steps toward repair or correction. The second phase of the project included the tendering of the work in March 2007 and the selection of the contractor. The final stage was the actual renovation work, which was carried out between June 2007 and January 2009. The project also involved the removal of insensitive additions that had undermined the building’s historic and aesthetic values.

Removal of the cladding that had been added in the 1960s was a first step in returning the façade to its former glory. The architect and contractor soon discovered other problems, however, including inappropriate pointing of the masonry and a coating of concrete render on the upper floors that proved difficult to remove. Workers removed the concrete from mortar joints and repointed the ground level façade with an appropriate lime-putty mix. The upper floors received a new coating of historic “Crete plaster”, duplicating the appearance of the original façade. On the interior, work included the reinstatement of the main staircase and the installation of patterned tiles matching the historic character of the interior. These replaced glazed tiles that had been added in recent decades.

The project team also addressed significant structural issues, including a dangerous level of termite infestation. One major problem was the structural failure of the jack-arch floor supports. Workers found the supporting beams to be severely decayed; these required immediate replacement. The floor slabs also had to be replaced. The repair and restoration process had the benefit of revealing the original architectural detailing.

Conservation and the Community

The YMCA is one of the oldest and largest non-profit service organizations in India today. The restoration of the multi-purpose Bowen Memorial Hall in the YMCA Students Branch as part of the project was made possible through the generous donation of US$ 30,000 from the United States Ambassador’s Fund. The rehabilitation project has touched the community in numerous ways, providing not only a new meeting space, office and residential facility, but also an example for future emulation. Most importantly, the project has raised public awareness about heritage and its value in the face of rising development pressure.

Quote from the Project Team

“The YMCA could have easily pulled down this building and constructed a new building instead as per the current trend. However, it very wisely chose to restore the building, improving on its details, incorporating all its present day needs and creating an ambience which makes you aware of the past in the present world; proving that it is possible to adapt the old in the present day context and to provide a successful example for others to follow.”