Century-old Shimla building’s two floors gutted

Shimla, Jan 28: A devastating fire broke out in a British-era half-timbered building with rich Gothic-style architecture in this Himachal Pradesh capital early Tuesday, reducing two of its floors to ashes, officials said. There was no loss of life.

The fire occurred in the top two floors of the four-storeyed 109-year-old Gorton Castle, housing the state’s Audit and Accountant General, a fire department official told IANS.

Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who visited the spot, ordered a probe.

“I am pained that a large portion of this historic building got gutted in a fire. An inquiry would be conducted to know its exact cause,” he told reporters.

The chief minister said he would also request the government of India to reconstruct the damaged portion of the building in the traditional style and architecture.

Deputy Commissioner Dinesh Malhotra said the cause of fire would be ascertained.

Civilian and army fire tenders were pressed into service to contain the blaze over five hours.

Sources said that most of the pension records lying in over 60 rooms in the top two floors were completely burnt. Fire-fighters had a tough time reaching the spot as many official vehicles were haphazardly parked within the complex.

Principal Accountant General Satish Loomba told reporters that Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports, to be laid in the state assembly next month, would be delayed.

“Five CAG reports, which were in the final process of compiling, will be delayed now,” he told reporters.

Rescue officials said around 4 a.m., a sentry posted at the headquarters of the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) noticed the fire and raised an alarm.

A team of about 200 army men with fire-fighting equipment carried out the fire-fighting operation, which included physically lifting the vehicles parked around the building to clear the passage for movement of the fire engines, said an official.

The building, located in the vicinity of the legislative assembly, housed the central secretariat of the British government till 1942.

The office of the Accountant General of India was shifted to the building in 1954.

Built with stone and timber, Gorton Castle was constructed under the supervision of Major H.F. Chesney and was completed in May 1904 at a cost of Rs.14.02 lakh.

In 2004, it was renovated at an expenditure of Rs.1 crore.

A special postal cover on Gorton Castle was released by the Department of Posts to mark its centenary in May 2004.

Shimla, fondly called the “Queen of Hills” by the colonial rulers, has 91 British-era heritage buildings.

Official sources said a large number of colonial buildings, built with a lot of wood, have been destroyed by fires in the past few decades.

The fire-damaged buildings include the Western Command (now ARTRAC) headquarters, Kennedy House and Peterhoff.

IANS