A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
The imposing ‘white house’ in the City
In the centre of the City of Colombo is the imposing building – the Town Hall – which houses the offices of the Municipal Council, the body administering the City. Before discussing the construction of this magnificent building, let us go into the history of the Municipal Council.

The Colombo Municipal Council, established during the time of the British, was one of three – the other two being Kandy and Galle – set up following the adoption of the Municipalities Ordinance by the Legislative Council in 1865. This was done in the time of Governor Sir Hercules Robinson (1865-1872) who was considered one of the greatest British colonial administrators of the day.

The limits of the Colombo Municipality were fixed by a Proclamation dated November 25, 1865. A committee was formed to prepare lists of resident householders and persons eligible to be elected as Councillors. Elections were held on three days in January 1866. Nine leading citizens were elected to represent Colpetty (Kollupitiya), Slave Island, Fort, San Sebastian, Pettah, St Paul’s, Cottanchina, New Bazaar and Maradana.

The Governor nominated five high officials – Government Agent - Western Province, Principal Civil Medical Officer, Chief Engineer & Commissioner of Roads, Deputy Queen’s Advocate and Assistant to the Surveyor-General - thus forming a Council of 14 members. The presence of the high officials provided a degree of technical knowledge and experience.

The first meeting of the Council was held on January 16, 1866 with a senior member of the Civil Service -Charles Peter (later Sir) Layard , Government Agent in the chair. He continued to be Chairman until 1877.

The Chairman was replaced by an elected Mayor under Ordinance No. 60 of 1935. Dr. Ratnajoti (later Sir) Saravanamuttu was the first mayor. The first Town hall was erected in Pettah at the intersection of Main Street and Fifth Cross Street. Alongside the Town hall was the market, which to this day is known as the Pettah market. It was opened in 1873. By 1907 it was felt that the requirements of the City had completely outgrown the accommodation, which the Municipal offices were capable of providing. The offices were scattered in a number of places.

A new Town Hall was urgently needed. It was also found that there was no room at the Pettah site for any expansion. It was decided to build a new building on a new site. Price Park was suggested as the new site. The project, however, got postponed following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

When the question of building a new Town Hall came up again, Professor Patrick Geddes, the distinguished town-planner suggested a more spacious site than Price Park for “the needed large, central and dignified position required for the Municipal buildings”. Thus the site where the Town hall stands today overlooking the Vihara Maha Devi Park (then known as Victoria Park), was selected. It also happened to be in the Cinnamon Gardens residential area.

It was after a competition that the design was chosen. The winning entry came from S. J. Edwards of Ralph Booty & Company of Singapore. Other two entries were from two individuals working in firms in Allahabad, India. The Ceylon Government Architect, A. Woodeson reported that in the winning design (i.e. the present Town hall) “the buildings are admirably laid out on the site; the outbuildings are well secluded but very accessible”. He wrote that the main building stands out prominently and would command pleasing views from all angles. How true!

He further wrote: “The connecting roads are well laid out. On the ground floor the corridors are straightforward, direct and well lighted. The general disposition of the departments and rooms is excellent and most convenient for access, circulation and inter-communicable both for the public and staff. On the upper floors, the offices are admirably arranged. The Council chamber is a magnificent apartment with ample accommodation for the public provided in an elevated gallery”.

“This provision gains many favourable points for this design. The elevations are very dignified and refined. The perspective view shows a very impressive group of buildings crowned by a dome and tower of fine proportions. The details and plans are excellently drawn, and illustrate in an artistic manner a most striking and effective design”.

The construction work commenced in 1924 by Messrs. A. A. Gammon & Co. and the building was opened on 2nd May 1928. It was considered the best building of its kind in the East and helped to give a new look to the administration of the City.

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