Every June, newspapers in Mumbai are awash with headlines on how the city is getting ready for the monsoon. This year, perhaps the most heartening news is that the restoration of the historic David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, built between 1867-70 with a ₹1.25 lakh donation from the affluent city businessman and Baghdadi Jew David Sassoon, is complete—just ahead of the monsoon.
For, the building, now more than 150 years old, had been suffering from water leakage. Water and white patches stained its stone walls. The restoration and conservation work, carried out over 16 months, has attempted to make the building water-resistant, polish the stone facade, protect the Milton-tile floor—the tiles were brought from England in 1867—and preserve a treasure trove of books.
“We have conserved and rehoused nearly 30,000 books in English, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and Kannada. We have also restored one of the oldest maps of Bombay that’s more than 120 years old. The David Sassoon Library collection includes some of the oldest books on architecture and design,” says Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation, the social development arm of the business conglomerate JSW Group. The other partners who donated for the cause include the ICICI Foundation, MK Tata Trusts, Kala Ghoda Association, Hermès, and the consulate general of Israel in Mumbai.
The restoration, which cost ₹4 crore, was entrusted to conservation architects Abha Narain Lambah Associates. The first issue to be addressed was water leakage—a persistent problem faced by nearly all structures in a city that has to tackle a long, unrelenting monsoon. As an architect from their team noted during a media walk-through last week, “Any conservation philosophy will always say that the problem that is killing your building should be addressed first.”
They had to start, then, by making the building water-resistant. It began with the roof. The original roof of the Victorian Gothic building had a cavernous pitched roof. In the 1960s, during a restoration exercise, it was replaced with an unimaginative but functional RCC slab. Over the years, the slab weakened. The architects demolished it and went back to the pitched roof. So, the main reading room now has a new roof with steel trusses that are painted brown to resemble timber.
The roof, however, is one part of making a building water-resistant. Other significant aspects that had to be tackled included downtake pipes, drainage gutters and plumbing.
The book cupboards too had water rot. In their place now stand new floor-to-ceiling shelves with glass doors and crisscross wooden patterns for the added visual appeal reminiscent of Victorian furniture.
One of the building’s most interesting features are the lamps and chandeliers. These originally had candles or bulbs powered by gas; one can still see remnants of gas pipes next to the lamps by the grand wooden stairway. The architects reinstalled the Victorian-style lamps, referencing archival photographs.
In a sense, as one of the architects pointed out, things have come full circle. What started as a philanthropic exercise has been restored by philanthropic donations.