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The High Court



One of the most iconic downtown buildings, the High Court building was completed in 1911. It was built on what had been the site of the dramatically titled Death Gate. This was the north-west entrance to the small town of Rangoon, which at the time sat on an island surrounded by swampy marsh. Dead bodies left the town through this gate, and so did convicted criminals being taken to the execution grounds. Those grounds are now buried somewhere under the middle block of 25th and 26th street. Originally the court had a lake in front of it, taking up part of what is now Mahabandoola Park.

The High Court is a good example of how perceptions of style change over time, and are coloured by nostalgia. Foreign visitors to the city love these grand old romantic buildings, but back when they were built they were by no means universally loved. One European resident described the High Court as looking as though it was designed by a convict that had never forgiven his judge. The design of the Secretariat building was disparaged as ‘bureaucratic byzantine’. These sprawling buildings were seen as overdesigned and pompous, with unnecessary and cliché imperial flourishes.

Well, I like it

The building in the foreground is the Bowyer, Sowden and Co store, which as ‘general outfitters’ primarily sold men’s clothes and footwear. Particular mention was given to their being the sole vendor in Burma of Acme boots, ‘known all over the world’ – though I haven’t been able to find any other record of these, so that may have just been good advertising.

According to a 1910 description, the store was founded by three men, Bowyer, Sowden and Rowe (seemingly no relation to the Rowe and Co department store). It’s not clear why the ‘and Co’ that represents Rowe is omitted in the original photograph. In 1909 Sowden disappeared without trace while on a steam boat back to Burma. A news article about the incident noted that he’d had sunstroke earlier that year.

Advice from a soldiers guide to staying healthy in British India (issued by a cigarette company)

Today, the High Court building is still partly in use as the court for Yangon division, though much of the building lies empty since the Supreme Court moved to Naypidaw in 2006. Some years ago there were plans made to sell the building to private investors, and ideas of a museum and library were floated, but these were met with resistance and seem to have stalled. The Bowyer, Sowden and Co store has been replaced by an office of the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank.

The stretch of road in front of both buildings is one of the three locations allocated by YCDC for street vendors, the others being Bank Street and alongside Strand Road. Of the three, this is probably the most ideally placed given its pedestrian friendly location and proximity to Mahabandoola Park.

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