By AYOOLA OLAOLUWA
In the height of their glory, Cocoa House, Aje House, Western House, as well as other landmark buildings built by the late Premier of the old Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, were the region’s pride. They all stood tall, dwarfing their peers.
However, the legacies built with proceeds from commodities like cocoa, rubber and timber, have become mere shadow of their past. They exists only in names and past glories. According to Business Hallmark investigation, the edifices, presently managed by Wemabod Estates Limited, the real estate arm of the Odu’a Investment Company, began their gradual descent several years ago with the intervention of the military in 1966 as well as the breakout of the Nigerian Civil War.
The worst hit, according to findings, is Cocoa House, located in the city of Ibadan in Oyo State. At a height of 105 metres (25 floors), the building which was declared opened in 1965 was the tallest building in tropical Africa. Though the masterpiece is still standing tall, it is now a shadow of its past.
At inception, Cocoa House served as the corporate headquarters for several investments of the then Western Regional Government which are today operating under a common conglomerate known as Odu’a Investment Company Limited. These include Wemabod Estates Limited, Cocoa Industries Limited, Askar Paints Limited, Odu’a Printing Press Limited, Epe Plywood Limited, Lagos Airport Hotel, Nigerite, among others. In addition, many leading private investors and organisations were proud to have offices within the Cocoa House.
Tragedy struck the Cocoa House on January 9, 1985 when the building was gutted by fire. It was obviously a setback for the fast growing conglomerate. It took the Odu’a States of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo and Osun a whole seven years to rehabilitate the edifice and restore it to its present position, after some modifications. And by August 3, 1992, the rehabilitated Cocoa House was jointly commissioned by the ruling Odu’a state governors–Chief Kolapo Ishola (Oyo), Chief Bamidele Olumilua (Ondo), Chief Olusegun Osoba (Ogun) and Alhaji Isiaka Adeleke (Osun).
Despite its rehabilitation in 1992, BH checks revealed that the building, which houses many companies as its tenants, is still being under-utilised.
Unlike in those days when it was functional and fully occupied with individuals and organizations eagerly seeking to be occupants of the high rise structure, checks revealed that less than half of the building is occupied.
Ironically, several high rise buildings in the neighborhood, particularly the Femi Johnson Glass House, are in sparkling conditions. The condition of the buildings is a classic example of a tale of two cities. While the Cocoa House shamefully rots away, the Femi Johnson Brooking House flourishes with its properly maintained facilities. From its alluring exterior, to its interior and lobby, Femi Johnson Glass House depicts orderliness, elegance and aesthetics.
However, the same can’t be said of Cocoa House. The building still depend largely on the Ibadan Electricity Company (IEC) for its electricity. It was reliably gathered that many potential tenants are skeptical of going for the high rise building because of irregular electricity supply to power the lifts and other infrastructures.
Another legacy building managed by Wemabod that facing tough times is the Western House on Lagos Island. The building used to be the toast in town, as prospering lawyers, accountants and businesses queue up to get a space in the once boisterous edifice.
However, several modern office buildings fitted with the state-of-the-art facilities have pushed down Western House in the ladder of referred office blocks. A lawyer who used to run his chamber from the building but is now located in the plum Landmark Towers Lekki, blamed Western House current condition on lack of maintenance on the part of its owners.
“I used to be embarrassed when my VIP clients are trapped in their lifts. Several times, they have to climb the stairs to get to my office located on the 6th floor. When I noticed that I was losing clients, I had to change office. And that solved the problem”, said the lawyer who did not want his identity disclosed.
BH reliably gathered that the management of WEMABOD Estates, in order to compete in the real estate market, made a futile effort to gain back tenants by giving the property a facelift in 2013.
“They repainted the building, recreated water channels for the air-conditioners and put air conditioners in the reception and lobby. They also changed the facial appearance of the building, bought a new generator and retiled the whole place. After the facelift, the tenants enjoyed electricity between 9am to 5pm as against 10 -12am and 2-4pm.previously.
“However, the good story did not last. In the spate of three years, the facility degenerated again and rich tenants fled to modern and better equipped office complexes”, said a facility officer at the building who did not want his identity disclosed for fear of victimization.
The state of Aje House, an iconic 12-floor tower in the heart of Ibadan’s Central Business District, is even worse. In fact, the edifice is rotting away. Built by renowned construction giant Cappa d’berto in the 50s and opened for use in 1960, Aje house was once the city’s pride.
However, the office facility has been emptied of all its sitting tenants in 2010 due to the planned renovation of the building to a modern one. However, nine years down the line, the building has remained abandoned.
The long period of abandonment is generating concern amongst the city’s real estate practitioners pondering why such huge income generating asset can be allowed to slide into a state of disrepair.
“Aje House holds a special place in the minds of professionals in the city’s business/intellectual community as its lesser peers such as Ile-Itesiwaju and Leventis building were the abode of young professionals in the 80s, 90s and 2000.
“Without any doubt, quite a sizeable number of Yoruba celebrated professionals have passed through this structure on their way to the success. However its said to note that Aje House is now in dire straits”, said Barrister Bayo Okanlawon, a lawyer based in Bodija.
Meanwhile, it is not all negative stories for Wemabod Estates Limited, which manages several other buildings and assets strategically located in Lagos, Ibadan and Port Harcourt.