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Senate House, at the Madras University campus on the Marina, is one of Chennai's most impressive architectural marvels. It was constructed under the supervision of Robert Fellowes Chisholm, one of the greatest architects of the 19th century.
The land once belonged to the Nawabs of the Carnatic, the then sovereign and independent rulers of this part of the country. They were taken over by the British in 1855. In 1857, the university and the Senate House were built on the palace lands.
This building, whose foundation stone was laid in 1869, was occupied in 1873. The entire structure is a harmonious blend of Indo-Saracenic style, with Byzantine architectural features.
The building essentially consists of a cellar hall, a ground floor hall called as Great Hall with a high ceiling, Northern and Southern wings and main entry porches. In addition the building has minarets and additional porches in the Eastern and Western sides.
The gigantic central hall on the ground floor (130' x 58' x 54') is the unique feature of the Senate House. It is supported by massive side walls on the east and west. The walls essentially consist of brick pillars (2.0 x 1.5 m) in the North/South direction. They are built with lime mortar and lime plaster. In between the pillars are provided with architecturally finished doors and windows in the shape of arches. The big circular windows on top of the door are decorated artistically with stained glass.
The floor consists of timber planks. The central hall is flanked on the east and west by wide corridors supported by six massive but exquisitely chiseled stone pillars on either side. The capitals of all the pillars are carved with Hindu deities, human and animal figures and geometric designs. The arches between the pillars are splendidly executed.
Below the central hall is the Cellar Hall and its floor is 2.69m below the ground level. It is provided with massive end and intermediate walls of brick masonry. The roof is further supported by main and secondary timber beams with additional brick pillars, probably provided to add additional support at a later date.
There are six porches, two each on the Eastern and Western sides of the building and one each in the Northern and Southern sides of the building. Each porch has three segmental arch openings in the East, West and South sides of the porch. The roof is of brick shell with lime mortar. The dimensions of the porch are 7.44 x 6.66 and 5.5 m in ht. These are the entries to the building. The main entry to the building is provided on the Northern side with an entry porch (7.4 x 6.6 m) with a vault type roof of brickwork supported on brick pillars. The north wing has two floors and is provided with partition walls to accommodate office rooms and toilets. The staircase is provided on the northern wing of the Great hall. The stairs provide access to both cellar and first floor.
The southern wing has an entry porch identical to that of Northern wing porch. This has a smaller hall at two levels one at the ground level and the other at the first floor. The access to first floor is provided through a staircase in dome. The flooring of the first floor is of timber planks supported on steel joists and columns. The roof above this wing is of wooden truss, zinc sheets and Mangalore tiles.
The building on the four corners is endowed with four attractive towers rising high with artistically shaped domes painted on the exterior with variegated colours. Its ornate ceiling, wrought iron trellises, stained glass windows and the exquisitely carved wooden work, provide the necessary appearance of beauty and grandeur to the Senate House.
Initially, the Senate House housed some of the University departments and the offices of the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar. In some of the smaller halls the meetings of the Senate, Academic Council and the Faculties were held. Annual convocations, grand occasions, used to be held in the massive hall. Apart from convocations, the Hall was used as the meeting place of the first elected Madras Legislative Assembly when it was convened in 1937. It was also the venue for the Madras Music Academy's music sessions in the first years of that institution.But after the construction of the new departmental library building and later on the centenary building, the use of Senate House was limited to the holding of the convocation and examinations, besides being used as classrooms for teaching foreign languages. However, since 1965, convocations have been held only at the massive centenary auditorium, built in 1960.
When Dr. S.P. Thyagarajan assumed office as Vice-Chancellor in 2003 and began to draw up plans for the Sesquicentennial Celebrations in 2006-2007. To help collect funds, monitor the restoration and then manage the restored Senate House, Dr. Thyagarajan and the Syndicate agreed to the establishment of a unique private sector-University partnership 'The Senate House Restoration and Maintenance Trust'. The Trust, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, comprises three trustees nominated by the University and three representatives from the NGOs who have played lead roles in helping the restoration get under way, namely the Willingdon Corporate Foundation (who made the biggest donation), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage - Tamil Nadu Chapter, which has for nearly 20 years been advising on the best means to restore the building, and Chennai Heritage, whose journal, Madras Musings, has for 15 years been creating an awareness about the University's and Senate House's heritage and has campaigned for the restoration and reuse of the landmark building.
P.T. Krishnan and K. Kalpana, a conservation architect, who volunteered their services for the restoration of Senate House, have supervised the implementation of this unique heritage project, working with a team of engineers from the PWD, the University, and Larsen & Toubro Ltd.'s ECC Division, the contractors for the work. The two INTACH-TN architects laid down the conservation guidelines for Senate House
India Post brought out a commemorative stamp to mark the 150th year of the University of Madras which was set up in 1857. The Stamp shows a section of the Senate House.