Shimla: Minto Court, one of the last few iconic structures of the Queen of Hills, has been gutted. It joins a list of British-era buildings that went up in flames in the recent past.
"I am really saddened with this loss," Raaja Bhasin, co-convener of the Himachal Pradesh chapter of Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) told IANS.
The fire burned for more than five hours before the firefighters could bring it under control, fire official M.L. Thakur told IANS Sunday. It is unclear how the fire started.
The two-storeyed, half-timbered Tudor style -- all-wooden frames and shingled eaves -- Minto Court building was completely gutted with all records within a few hours Saturday night. It housed the office of Project Deepak of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an inter-services organisation under the defence ministry.
The fire authorities said it was one of the deadliest fires in Shimla since Jan 28 when a blaze broke out in the 109-year-old Gorton Castle, housing the state's Audit and Accountant General's offices, reducing two of its floors to ashes.
"Another one of Shimla's fine heritage buildings succumbs to the carelessness of the inhabitants," said Mohit Sood, who was born and brought up in this hill town.
"It's time to have a serious review of the fire and safety measures at these heritage structures that make what Shimla is all about and has to offer to the world," added Sood, who is also Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association's press secretary.
Sanjay Varshney, who also has spent his childhood in Shimla, said: "Sad news. It reminds me of the first such fire of my life at our school, which was a heritage building of Harcourt Butler School (now housing Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Jakhu hills)."
Minto Court, constructed in the early 1900s, was located in the vicinity of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies housed in the century-old Viceregal Lodge.
Before the Gorton Castle, another heritage structure, a railway station at Kandaghat, some 25 km from here, was reduced to ashes May 3, 2011. It too built by the British in 1903.
The records with the state fire department say that since Independence at least a dozen British-era buildings in Shimla, most of them occupied by the government departments and agencies, have been consumed by fire.
The prominent ones include Snowdown Hospital, Wildflower Hall, Kennedy House, Peterhoff, the Western Command Headquarters, Raj Bhavan, General Post Office and the US Club Army Mess.
Home to seven viceroys during the British Raj and housing the Punjab High Court where Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathu Ram Godse was tried, the rebuilt Peterhoff, now a state-run guest house-cum-hotel, was gutted in a massive fire Jan 12, 1981. It then housed Raj Bhavan.
Likewise, Wildflower Hall, also rebuilt and now a landmark luxury hotel on Shimla's outskirts, was destroyed in a fire in 1990.
It was once the residence of Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief of the British Army in India who went on to play a significant role in the early years of World War I, though he died midway through it.
Shimla, which served as the summer capital of British India between 1864 and 1939, currently has 91 British-era heritage buildings, but most are in bad shape.
Still, there are some honourable exceptions: Ellerslie, housing the state secretariat; the Vidhan Sabha; the Town Hall; the United Services Club; Barnes Court, which is Raj Bhavan; and the Viceregal Lodge.
"I think we don't deserve to retain such rich Gothic-style architecture," remarked a conservationist, who was visibly depressed to see the gutted Minto Court.