Heritage: Saving The Karachi Press Club
It is not much different from saving a life. There is the flat-lining patient surrounded by doctors trying everything within their power to resuscitate him, to get him to breathe again. That is what the Endowment Trust (EFT) does for the architectural heritage of Sindh.
The EFT sees saving and conserving one’s heritage as a matter life and death. It is about protecting the cultural identity of a city and creating awareness among people about old structures in order to discourage demolition and additions to heritage buildings. According to the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act passed by the provincial assembly in 1994, there were about 600 buildings declared as heritage monuments here initially, following which 400 more were added to the list in the next 20 or so years.
The Karachi Press Club (KPC) situated in Saddar, has a much celebrated history, not only as a vibrant meeting place for journalists, literateurs and intellectuals, but also as a beacon of resistance and free speech during dark times. Even while the media has been under threat from official and non-official forces — as it is now — journalists have jealously guarded the KPC as their own ‘Hyde Park’. It was founded in 1958 but its building, a city landmark, is much older than that. Built sometime in 1890, it is almost 130 years old and has seen much wear and tear over the years.
How the landmark building with a rich history and legacy was saved from ruin
To save the ceiling of the upper floor from caving in earlier, a senior member of the club and former editor of Dawn newspaper Saleem Asmi had stepped in to help replace the wooden roof with a concrete one. But this was still not enough. It was in 2012 when Sassui Palijo, the then minister for culture, visited the KPC and, after being shown around, said that she wanted to see it restored. Reportedly, the government of Sindh set aside funding for the purpose though it never reached the KPC.
By 2013, the then KPC secretary Amir Latif raised alarm regarding the condition of the entire structure. With termite infestations in the doors, windows and their frames, stones in the walls pockmarked and foundations getting weaker by the day due to the rise in the level of the saline water table underneath, he declared that it was almost in ruins.
That was when the heritage conservationist EFT’s Hamid Akhund approached the KPC and offered to help. The restoration work was a labour of love and thus it took time. Starting in 2014 after conducting a thorough survey and research, it is now almost complete. The building, with still a few finishing touches remaining, was handed back to the representatives of the KPC only last month.
It wasn’t just replacing a brick, stone or tile with a new one. Since Mr Akhund had appointed his chief engineer, the perfectionist Mohanlal Ochani, to supervise the work, everything had to be done with well, perfection, and with passion too.
If a stone in the wall or a floor tile needed replacing, it had to be replaced with an equal strength and aged piece. They were able to find the same quality stone from Jhimpir. “It is a heritage building, therefore any replacements made also had to be as old and precious,” says Ochani.
The wooden doors and windows in the building were white and, as far as any member can remember, they had always been white. But when they started to clean up the wood and termite infestations, it was found out that the wood was of the finest quality. It was all Burma teak. Therefore, for its new look, KPC has all this beautiful wood polished to show off its original colour.
The restoration didn’t just comprise work on the building structure; the club also housed some valuable art in the shape of old paintings and calligraphy that were now dusty with some fungus settling in them, too. EFT’s Khalid Soomro and his team at the Mohatta Palace Museum helped restore those. They also gave them wooden frames.
With termite infestations in the doors, windows and their frames, stones in the walls pockmarked and foundations getting weaker by the day due to the rise in the level of the saline water table underneath, Amir Latif the them KPC secretary declared that it was almost in ruins.
Going the extra mile, the EFT even restored the old furniture. The indigo colour used in the calligraphic works hanging in the main hall became the inspiration for the new upholstery for most of the sofas inside. And that wasn’t all, as the trust also donated new air conditioners to KPC.
The upper floor of KPC housed some old cupboards with old papers and books. The cupboards, which also turned out to be solid teak are now all cleaned and polished. The books have also been cleaned and sorted according to subject. Instead of being pushed against the wall to one side, the cupboards have been placed to create walking areas in between for those looking for reading material.
The family of the late former commissioner of Larkana, Sukkur and Mirpurkhas, Salahuddin Qureshi — who also authored several books including Sindh: Time Capsule of Heritage — has also expressed its wish to donate all of his book collection to the KPC library.
The EFT says that with their work the historical KPC building can stand the test of time for the next 100 years. The biggest challenge now is for the KPC management to maintain it. For this they are looking forward to welcoming the EFT experts for regular inspection visits.
Had it not been for their intervention to save the province’s heritage buildings, many such landmark structures today would be making way for giant shopping plaza, and malls. The media may be under threat these days but at least the KPC no longer is.