Hall back to life
By M. Waqar Bhatti
Until a few weeks back, security personnel were the only human beings allowed to enter the lawns around Frere Hall. Only stray dogs and cats could freely stroll along the grassy landscape of this historic landmark. For many years, the park was virtually a no-man’s-land due to tight security arrangements for the US Consulate building on the Abdullah Haroon (formerly Victoria Road) Road facing the park.
These were the observations of Qazi Asad Afridi, an ACCA student, who has continued to visit the Liaquat Hall library at Frere Hall since 2009 with his books, notebook, a scientific calculator and a couple of ballpoints. He says he was not allowed to sit or walk in the park until a couple of weeks ago when the US Consulate was finally shifted from the fortress in front of Frere Hall to its new location on Mai Kolachi Road.
“Earlier, only security personnel and stray dogs were allowed to walk or sit in the park while the rare human beings were restricted only to the library or the Gallery Sadequain,” Asad Afridi said while sitting under the shadow of a large tree in the Bagh-e-Jinnah Park, commonly known as Frere Hall Park or simply Frere Hall.
With the shifting of the US Consulate from its previous location, the Frere Hall Park and the Frere Hall building that houses an art gallery and a library are no longer ‘out of bounds’ for human beings and common people.
Still, the number of visitors to the park or the art gallery are quite small compared to other major public parks where hundreds of people can be seen walking, sitting and indulging in leisure activities. Most people are still unaware of the reality that Frere Hall has been opened for the public after its closure over eight years ago.
“There still prevails an environment of fear that has gripped this beautiful place due to its closure by the security personnel. Fatima Jinnah Road, where the back entrance is located, is still largely closed to vehicular traffic while public transport is still not allowed on Abdullah Haroon Road. The number of police and Rangers personnel have decreased, and the most of the bunkers they built abandoned, but they are still present on all the entrances and exits to this park,” Asad Afridi said when asked why people were still reluctant to visit Frere Hall like they used to do prior to its closure.
Elderly Illahi Bux, a driver by profession, was another person seen at Frere Hall after its reopening. The man sits in the park killing time while he waits for a call from his bioss. “Thanks to Almighty Allah, this remarkable place is no longer off limits to people like us nearly like it was for a decade. Now, nobody stops me from walking down Abdullah Haroon Road, entering Frere Hall and sitting on a bench as long as I wish,” he said.
Asked if the glories of Frere Hall will be revived again, Illahi Bux said the park will only be the same when Pakistan was when there used to be no bomb blasts, no incidents of terrorism and free from the environment of fear and harassment that now grips the city of lights.
By early evening, more people started pouring into the Frere Hall including women, children and couple, while a few vendors, selling spicy roasted grams and chick peas. Their number, however, was still a lot lower than it used to be in the park’s heyday.
Ali Murad, a gardener associated with the Parks and Horticulture Department of the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), was watering the grass and plants along with several other CDGK employees. The Director General of their department, Liaquat Ali Khan, also has his office in the vicinity.
“Despite the closure of this park, we are maintaining and looking after the lawns for the last many years. Because the park was largely empty of people, its maintenance was relatively easier. But now when people have started coming here, we have to work harder at the upkeep. Still, we are also delighted by the change and are working more efficiently,” Murad said.
The lawns around Frere Hall have not only lost their visitors during its closure. Many other material things, including the floodlights that used to illuminate the Victorian Venetian Gothic-style historic building built in 19th century. Almost all the mercury lights that were installed in the lawns to light up the park have disappeared, and most importantly, all the fountains and ponds have also dried up due to the neglect of the concerned staff.
An official of the CDGK’s Parks and Horticulture Department, who identified himself only as Agha Sahib, told neither had they closed the park or the Frere Hall for anyone nor had they opened it. “Everybody knows who closed the park and why it was opened again. We are only concerned with its maintenance and we have done that in the previous years and are still doing it,” he replied when asked about the status of Frere Hall during its closure.
Agha Sahib had no answer for the ill-maintained lighting arrangements in the Hall, saying that visitors had taken away a few bulbs while many had stopped functioning and needed to be changed. Similarly, the fountains also needed repair and with the passage of time, they would be made operational, he vowed.
According to him, due to the continuing lack of public transport on Abdullah Haroon Road and Fatima Jinnah Road, people were still not aware of its re-opening, but added that the number of people was a ‘lot better’ than the previous week when it was quietly opened for the public after the shifting of the US Consulate and withdrawal of security personnel and barricades.
Giving a brief history of the Frere Hall, the CDGK official said the place is named after Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, who was the first Chief Commissioner of Sindh. The construction started in 1863 and later two lawns were established around it in 1887-88 by another Briton, Benjamin Flinch.
“The Frere Hall building was designed by Lt. Col St. Clair Wilson and was opened by Samuel Mansfield, the Commissioner of Sindh in 1865. After independence, the park was renamed Bagh-e-Jinnah, which is still its official title,” he informed.
According to architecture lovers in Karachi, although Frere Hall is a protected heritage building, it is not being preserved as it deserves to be, keeping in view its history, architectural importance and the fact that it houses the work of celebrated artist Sadequain under its roof.
- During the British Raj, Frere Hall has served as a Town Hall and was the hub of Karachi’s cultural activities.
- It was built to commemorate the commissionership of Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere (1815–1884).
- Twelve designs were submitted of the building. Finally, the construction began in August 1863 and was completed in 1865.
- The estimated budget of the hall was around Rs. 180,000 largely paid by municipality.
- The ground floor has of one of the largest libraries in Karachi – Liaquat Hall Library containing more than 50,000 reading materials.
- The upper part of the building houses an art gallery called ‘Gallery Sadequain’, after the name of a seasoned artist, Sadequain.
- The Frere Hall has two lawns originally known as ‘Queen’s Lawn’ and ‘King’s Lawn’ which were renamed as Bagh-e-Jinnah (Jinnah Garden) later on.
– Kolachi Desk
Damage during the closure
Although some of the restrictions for visiting Gallery Sadequain, housed in Frere Hall, have been lifted with the shifting of the US Consulate from Abdullah Haroon road, there are still impediments in place on one of the main roads leading to the historic monument. The Fatima Jinnah Road, from where people used to enter the lawns and the Frere Hall building itself prior to its closure, is still restricted to traffic.
“It will take a long time to revive the glories of Frere Hall and Gallery Sadequain as the main approach leading to it is still littered with barricades and checkpoints. Once it was a busy road with a lot of people passing through on public transport but now it is even out of bounds for most private vehicles. People are still not coming to Frere Hall in the manner they used to.” These were the observations of an official of CDGK’s Community Welfare Department which maintains the Frere Hall and Gallery Sadequain.
A small number of women and some students were present at the Gallery Sadequain on the second day of an exhibition, ‘Dekho Pakistan,’ organised by a local NGO as part of the ‘Hamara Karachi Festival 2011’. After Frere Hall’s closure in 2003, most people still seem unaware about whether the place has reopened or not.
On the other hand, the historic Frere Hall building, a masterpiece of Venetian Gothic style architecture, suffered a lot during the years of its closure, largely because of neglect on the part of its caretakers – the Community Development Department of CDGK.
Most recently, the building suffered damage due to the massive bomb blast at the CID office nearby that rocked entire city on November 11, last year. The blast uprooted some of the wooden doors of the building, shattered its glass windows and caused irreparable loss to its structure, especially to the woodwork used in the building.
Almost all the lights that were installed by the department concerned to illuminate the historic building were destroyed, while years of neglect now gives the historic building a look of an abandoned haunted house.
Malik Nazeer, the person in charge of the Gallery Sadequain, also believes that it will take long to revive the glories of the Frere Hall. According to him, a lot has changed in and around the Hall during its years of closure to the common people, art lovers and those who simply wished to get some moments of peace and leisure in the centre of the city.
“The days of restrictions have tarnished the image of this place. The humiliation, men, women, children and the elderly, suffered at the hands of the security personnel deployed here to safeguard the consulate has had far-reaching affects on them. People are still hesitant in visiting this place despite the softening of restrictions in the last couple of weeks,” he shared, adding that a lot of steps would have to be taken to revive the past glories of the landmark.
Recalling the days of restrictions on people, he said in those days only public ceremonies used to be held at the Hall and only select people were invited to attend them. Despite special letters written to security officials seeking permission for people with invitations to enter Frere Hall, many visitors complained of harassment at the hands of the security personnel.
“Now, even when the Abdullah Haroon Road has been opened for vehicular traffic, public transport is not allowed on it. Meanwhile, the Fatima Jinnah Road, the main entrance to approach Frere Hall, is still off-limits for vehicles as it still has barricades and security checkpoints. People are not coming to Frere Hall keeping in view the past situation here,” he observed.
As far as poor maintenance of the structure is concerned, Nazeer said they tried their best to maintain the cultural heritage but the CID bomb blast proved a major setback for Frere Hall as the shockwaves of the blast pulled up its wooden gates, shattered window panes and also caused damage to the building’s structure.
The District Coordination Officer (DCO) Karachi visited Frere Hall last week with experts from the Works and Services Department of CDGK to inspect the damage caused by years of neglect and the devastating bomb blast. He asked the officials concerned to constitute a committee of architects and experts to restore the building to its original shape.
“You know, due to its cultural and historical importance, the staff of Frere Hall can’t even put a nail in any wooden structure. A committee of architects is being constituted to ascertain the damage to it and take steps for its preservation in accordance with its structural and cultural importance. The building’s electricity supply system has also developed faults and it also needs to be replaced or improved,” Nazeer maintained.
These days, mainly schoolchildren, people living in the residential areas nearby and people who work around visit the place, while attendance at the on-going exhibition at the Gallery Sadequain is also relatively thin.
CDGK officials believe that a media campaign and the patronage of the city authorities is required, in addition to removing all the remaining restrictions, to revive the glories of this historic landmark - a beautiful symbol of calmness in the heart of a bustling city.
– By MWB