The man who designed front face of Lake House
by Aditha Dissanayake
Nestled among the luxurious green of the Vihara Maha Devi Park is a quiet corner, a brick path, a garden bench, small red flowers... Behold a lady, draped in a beautiful sari, walking quietly among the well manicured bushes. She touches a leaf here, bends down to pick a fallen flower, stands in silence in front of the plaque at the entrance with a fond smile on her face.
"She comes here regularly whenever she is in Sri Lanka", says H. B. Aberatne, an employee of the park for seventeen years, who waits quietly watching the lady.
"This is where Sir, died. I remember the morning very well. He was stroking the head of the elephant we had in the park after his walk from Barnes Place, when suddenly he fell on the ground and passed away. We ran up to him but there was nothing we could do".
"Sir", is Oliver Weerasinghe, the first city planner and architect of the country, who died on January 20, 1980, at the Vihara Maha Devi Park. A kinsman of the newspaper magnate, D. R. Wijewardene he was responsible for planning and constructing the present Lake House building.
According to H. B. W. Abeynaike, in "Men and Memories", Oliver Weerasinghe, is however, best known for planning and developing the new town of Anuradhapura, advocating this as an essential step in preserving our heritage.
An old boy of Royal College who was trained by the famous planner Sir Patrick Abercombie at the University of Liverpool during the 1920s, he was the third among the "Weerasinghe brothers" - the youngest brother of Auditor General Lionel Weerasinghe, and Chief of the Fire Brigade, B. E. Weerasinghe.
And the lady who pays regular visits to the Park to stand quietly by the place where her husband passed away, to recall fondly the memories of thirty-two-years of a happy, married life is Christobel Weerasinghe - the daughter of Sir Henry Kotalawela. As I approach her with hesitant steps, on a sunny, Wednesday morning at the Park, not wanting to break into her solitude she turns towards me and gives me a radiant smile.
Seeing the loving sparkle in her eyes and feeling the warmth in her smile, I realise that the adage, "behind every successful man there is a woman", is surely true.
At first not willing to talk about herself or her life with Oliver Weerasinghe, she narrates her husbands achievements " There were architects and city planners before him, in Sri Lanka, but he was the first who was both an architect and a city planner.
From 1965 to 1971 he was Ceylon's Ambassador to the United States." While her husband was a Director at the United Nations in New York from 1956 to 1965, she herself had been an alternate representative, and had conducted a radio program, "Tales from the East" from WAMU-FM, the American University station in Washington.
She had lectured to school groups and women's clubs about Sri Lanka, and when paid a honorarium sent it to a charity. Even today she conducts classes at the Methodist Church Day Care Centre for three to five-year-old children, two mornings a week.
Finally, moving on to speak of her marriage, she says she had first seen Oliver Weerasinghe when he was brought to a college production of "The Bohemian Girl" by D. R. Wijewardene, in which she was performing.
He was fifteen years older than her, but they have got on very well together so much so that her children say theirs was "One of the happiest marriages" on earth. "None of what I have achieved could have been possible if not for my husband. He helped me in everything I did.
He was wonderful as a husband, as a friend, as a companion". She attributes the success of her marriage to sharing everything together. "Every night before we went to bed he used to ask me how I had spent my day and he used to share with me everything he had done that day." She says he was a "basically quiet, reserved, strong person".
His most memorable words to her were, "Life is a struggle, but as we reach out to people, our life will be enriched".
Today, fifteen years after he succumbed to a heart attack while stroking the head of the elephant resident at the Vihara Maha Devi Park, Sumeda, a technical officer, says "We have allocated a worker to look after this corner which will always be reserved for Sir (Oliver Weerasinghe) because he was the first city planner and architect of our country".
As long as the park is there, so too the plaque which says " Oliver Weerasinghe, Architect, Town Planner and Diplomat, who died at this spot on 20th January, 1980 - May he attain Nibbana".