While the Frere Hall has been shut down multiple times between 2003 and 2011 due to terrorist attacks on the US Consulate nearby, it opened permanently to the public in 2012. Since then, it has continued to attract frequent visitors eager to learn about its rich history. This national landmark was constructed around 1865 under the supervision of the second Chief Commissioner of Sindh, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. Previously used as a library for British Indian soldiers, the premises were eventually transformed into a monumental tribute to the Commissioner by the people of Sindh. Known for his tremendous hard work and honesty, Frere was revered as an icon by the locals.
Out of the 13 different options considered for the project, Lieutenant Colonel Clair Wilson’s architectural design clearly stood out, giving the Hall its characteristic Venetian-Gothic outlook. The original layout of the structure also housed the National Museum of Pakistan until the early 1970s, when the government decided to shift the Museum to a nearby location on Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed Road. The two gardens of the original building, then known as the King’s and Queen’s Lawns, also featured statues of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, which were later removed. The lawns were subsequently renamed Bagh-e-Jinnah.
The layout of the Frere Hall is the perfect blend of British and local constructional tastes, incorporating features such as multiple pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. The intricate wall carvings and beautifully articulated mosaic designs are visible on numerous brackets and pillars that support the building. Boasting an immaculate mix of sandstone, white, grey, red and peach colors, the Frere Hall is extremely hard to miss for passersby. The voussoirs on the ground and first floors consist of dark grey and red sandstone respectively, whereas the columns in the upper verandah are made of white limestone with its traditional oolite appearance. These materials were brought in from nearby towns and districts such as Bholari and Jungshahi, the latter being famous for its sandstone and limestone variety. The most notable sub-constructions of the Frere Hall are the Muntz metal-coated spirelet and octagonal tower, giving the building its traditional Venetian appearance.
The Frere Hall is also remembered for the Liaquat National Library, housing close to 70,000 books in the ground floor of the building. These books comprise a variety of subjects, ranging from geography, science and history to religion, social science, arts and literature. The collection also includes rare manuscripts, technical reports, journals, and a remarkable collection of atlases.
Perhaps the most impressive collection is that of old Dawn and Jang newspapers, which, according to Library Manager Mohammad Ali, date back to 1952. The Library itself is also almost just as old, he exclaims proudly. While the condition of the Library has deteriorated over time, especially since the reopening of the Frere Hall, some work has been started by concerned authorities to restore it to its original condition. While the Liaquat National Library attracts a fair share of visitors, the Sadequain Art Gallery on the first floor gets the most visits. Named after prolific Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi, the gallery hosts a sizeable collection of some of his best works. Many of the paintings and calligraphy displayed at the gallery involve an eclectic mix of Western and local artistic appreciations – one of the reasons why Sadequain’s work is so highly regarded. Gallery Manager Mansoor Ahmed sums up the Gothic element in this building as one supporting “a well-ventilated design with no artificial lighting”. The ceiling of the Gallery Hall showcases the last piece created by Sadequain, and is the only “artificial” element featured in a building that has otherwise been preserved in its original state for the last 150 years.
The Frere Hall speaks volumes about an entirely different time, place, culture and society. One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the realization that the stone-carved walls, complex mosaic designs, railings and brackets of this glorious structure were in existence almost two centuries ago, transmitting ancient societal norms, values and traditions through space and time. In this mind-bending context, one identifies this monument as a distinct crossroads between the past and present of Karachi.
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