Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ballantine House

A week ago, my friend who blogs under the name Dashu Pagla wrote about the Marble Palace in Kolkata. It is an old palace which could be a great tourist attraction but thanks to our government, it is a deserted old house where there are only two ways of entering: either get a permit from the tourism office or bribe the guard.

Since his write-up was a very thought provoking one, I could not help compare Marble Palace with a house that I visited last Friday. It is the Ballantine House adjoining the Newark Museum.

This house (photo on the right) was built in 1885. Please note that this is not a palace. It is just a large Victorian house that  sits in the middle of a medium sized garden in downtown Newark. The Ballantines bought it and refurbished it in 1891. They were brewery owners and quite rich people. This house has 27 rooms and there were 15 servants living in the house at that time.

Later the house came into the possession of an insurance company who, fortunately, didn't destroy anything other than the kitchen. They covered the walls, floors and ceilings and used it for some time. Since this was next to the Newark Museum, the museum bought this house as a storage place and used it as a godown for a few years. Then they decided to demolish it to make way for new construction.

But the demolition process could not be started due to a lack of funds. So a detailed assessment was made of how big the building was, what its construction was like and how much money was needed to demolish it. Only then did they realize that they were sitting on an absolute treasure without realizing it.

Now the house is like a time capsule from the Victorian era, with authentic pieces of furniture, many of which are original to the house. So are many of the candlebras, light fixtures, curtains, upholstry and wallpapers. There are lovely fireplaces (although the house was centrally heated) and stained glass windows in all rooms. The large window seen at the bottom of this post is a magnificent piece of work on the stairwell landing.

Last month the house was decorated for Christmas, the way it would have been decorated a hundred and twenty years ago. The hallways were adorned with holly. The tables were set for a Christmas dinner (above right) as if the family would enter any moment. Notice the lamp at the top. Some shades face downwards: they were for electric bulbs. The ones facing upwards were for gas lamps. The living room (below) was decorated with stockings for Santa to leave gifts in. There are also some costumes in one of the rooms (above left) that the visitors can try on to see what people from that era looked like.

All of this is part of the Newark Museum now. There are guided tours to the first two floors, and the third floor is a large hall that is rented out for conferences and lunch parties. Some of the rooms contain galleries for the museum. While we are deciding on how to demolish our old zamindar houses and palaces to build matchbox-like flats (or letting them fall apart by themselves), the Americans are earning money with them, while preserving works of art and a valuable piece of history.

Before I end, I would like to say something about the photographs. The house is pretty dimly lit (to prevent damage to old fabrics and wallpapers), so photography was difficult. I am not very sure whether it was allowed, but I did not take them secretly. There was no sign stating that photography was prohibited. After I had taken all these photographs, one of the museum employees told me that I was not supposed to take pictures. I didn't take any after that.


  1. "The mansions are in varying stages of ruin. The height of kitsch is the Marble Palace, open to the public with a pass from the government tourism office and stuffed with ugly gauche crystal chandeliers and stone lions"
    -Somini Sengupta, NYT

    "Filled with kitsch that looks if they had been scavenged from job lots on the Portobello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons."

    Geoffrey Moorhouse, in his book, “Calcutta: The City Revealed,”

    If you think Marble Palace should be a tourist attraction think again

  2. @Anonymous: I didn't know that Somini Sengupta is an art critic whose views I have to take as the law. She thinks those lions are ugly, so that should be enough reason to demolish them, isn't it? Thankfully most people would like to differ with the likes of her. In my opinion, by the way, those lion statues are better than the ones at Victoria Memorial.

    Speaking of kitsch, I do not disagree. Tastes change with times. Many of the things in the Ballantine House are way over the top too. Is your idea of a time capsule a house filled with things that suit modern tastes? The worst kitsch items I have seen in my life are the Nizam's Jewels in Hyderabad. I clearly wrote so in my blog at the time. But that does not mean I do not appreciate the effort to display them for the public and turn them into a tourist attraction. If the things are over the top, fine! They should be displayed as such.

    I have not been to the Marble Palace, only seen photos of the statues. I do not know what things are there inside it, so I would not comment on what Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote. But my whole point was that we don't know how to conserve historical buildings while Americans do. Before turning the Ballantine House into a tourist attraction, the Newark Museum had to buy a lot of authentic furniture of that era and replace things that were gone - destroyed or sold off. Nothing comes easy. But just writing off an idea because "that house is full of junk" is plain stupid. Again, I am thankful that Somini Sengupta works for NYT. I'd prefer to have such toxic elements out of the country.