If you are not familiar with the phrase, ‘LIC na height da’, you do not belong to Chennai. That is the influence of the first skyscraper of Chennai on every Chennaiite. For over five decades, LIC building on Mount Road – now Anna Salai - has been the empire State building of Chennai.
Initially, it was born of the imagination of Chidambaram Chettiyar, chairman of United India Assurance, but later, when insurance was nationalised in 1956, LIC took over the activities.
The imposing structure, which has 14 floors including basement and ground floor, figures in movies and lyrics of many Tamil movies – even now. One of its contemporaries is the song Chennai City Gangsta which has these lines Ungalukku India Gate-u, Engalukku LIC weight-u.
“I did not see the building till I became an undergraduate student, but I was aware that LIC was the tallest building in Chennai all because of movies and songs,” says Jaya, a city youth.
From the time of its inception, LIC has brought pride to all Chennaiites.
“Whenever the building appears in movies, audience can infer that the plot of the movie is turning towards Chennai, making everyone feel at home,” says veteran Tamil film researcher, ‘Film News’ Anandan.
Though multi-storeyed buildings may be popping up every other month, LIC has its significance not only for being the first “tallest” building of Chennai but also for using pile foundation technique for the first time.
“This building can withstand any lateral force because of the deep foundation. Another specific feature is that the building is packed with concrete walls on the east and west side, so that the sun’s rays do not penetrate the building when the sun rises or sets.
This keeps the temperature inside stable. So, having glass windows on the southern and northern side do not heat up the building. The glass provide enough lighting even if there is a power cut,” elaborates S. Thangavel, chief engineer of LIC.
Aruldas, a senior security guard aged around 70, who has worked in LIC for 17 years now, and a resident of the same locality, is filled with pride over the association. “I have affinity towards this
building, and will be overwhelmed whenever I see it in movies.” With goose bumps and in perfect Tanglish, he said, “Even after several years, LIC will get the same respect.”
The combined legacy of London-based chartered architects H.J. Brown and L.C. Moulin, and L.M. Chitale, founder of the architectural firm Chitale & Son, has several feathers to its hat. It was the first structure in Chennai to have electric elevator and 400-tonne centrifugal air-conditioning plant. Much of the raw materials were imported from England to finish the structure within seven years from the time it was conceived in 1952.
“My father had much greater responsibility after the London architects left. He had to explore a lot of areas to make sure the structure was safe and remains modern even after several decades. All his efforts and those of his predecessors make the building a monument, just like the high court building,” says S.L. Chitale, son of L.M. Chitale.
The majestic LIC building was inaugurated on August 23, 1959 by the then Union finance minister Moraji Desai and became the headquarters of LIC for south India.
“Emotionally, I feel there is history behind every structure in every corner of the world. If we remove the structures, there is no history. The same way LIC has created history,” says Thangavel with great emotion.