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Is it lights out for the Esplanade Mansion? The birthplace of Indian cinema faces demolition

We trace the rise and fall of Mumbai’s architectural landmark, the Esplanade Mansion

The building was converted in 1960 into tenement flats and offices. Subhash Sharma for The National
The building was converted in 1960 into tenement flats and offices. Subhash Sharma for The National

It is the oldest surviving cast-iron building in India. But the Esplanade Mansion, formerly known as Watson’s Hotel, has also become a symbol of Mumbai’s decline.

The once majestic structure has been declared unsafe by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, its tenants told to leave and there is also talk of demolishing the building, which opened its doors in 1869. In 2006, the World Monuments Fund – a New York non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving historic architecture worldwide added the building to its list of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments.

The early history of the Esplanade Mansion

Originally owned by Englishman John Watson, Esplanade Mansion’s vintage is impressive, even by colonial standards. “The materials for this building were wholly English; the iron frame came from Derby, the bricks and cement from the banks of the Thames, the tiles from Staffordshire and, finally, the red stone plinth and column bases from Penrith, Cumberland, where Watson hailed from,” scholarly site The Victorian Web says.

“These were conveyed from England to India by ships via the Cape of Good Hope in 1864-1865 and erected on the esplanade in the town of Mumbai under the superintendence of Mr Thomas Thompson of Wetheral. The design and mode of construction proved quite a success.”

Jonathan Charles Clarke, a buildings historian associated with The University of Cambridge, cites a traveller’s diary in his 2002 tome Construction History: “A traveller familiar with Bombay passed through it in 1867, and, on a morning walk, observed that opposite Forbes Street ‘something like a huge birdcage had risen like an exhalation from the earth’. This was, in fact, the skeleton of the Esplanade Hotel.” In their architectural tome Bombay: the Cities Within, heritage experts Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra say that “with more than 120 baths fitted, it outdid European levels of luxury. It was thoroughly ventilated throughout with a punkahwallah [a manually ­operated fan] serving every room and it commanded breathtaking views across the harbours, bays and distant hills. And it boasted India’s first steam-powered lift.”

To add to the crackle and grain of sepia-tinted nostalgia, Indian cinema was born in Watson’s Hotel on July 7, 1896. Six films were screened by the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, who were among the world’s first filmmakers, at an event that was described by The Times of India as “the miracle of the century”. Tickets cost 1 Indian rupee [less than 1 fils], which was an extravagant price at the time.

The films screened were Entry Of A Cinematographe, Arrival Of A Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving The Factory and Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels. Reports suggested the audience was in thrall. The precipitous fall faced by Esplanade Mansion is only made more remarkable when you realise that Bollywood, the world’s largest film producer, is based in Mumbai.

Watson's Hotel in the 1880s. Alamy
Esplanade Mansion in the 1880s. Alamy

“Esplanade Mansion, or Watson’s Hotel, is emblematic of government apathy towards our heritage and the failure of private enterprises in playing a more proactive role towards preserving our history. Add to this an outdated Rent Control Act, and owners of crumbling structures have few resources to maintain them,” says Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect who has spent the past 23 years working on a series of seminal urban restoration projects in Mumbai.

“The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority does not have staff or expertise when it comes to colonial structures. To them, a building from 1967 is the same as a building from 1867,” she says. “Esplanade Mansion lies on one of the most expensive pieces of land in the world. Even if someone were to buy it for 4 billion rupees [Dh213 million], if restored lavishly, the commercial options are plentiful. You can have an art gallery, a boutique hotel, a fine-dining restaurant, or what have you. But you need to have a vision and a will.”

A star-studded affair

After opening its doors, Watson’s Hotel began to attract a dazzling cast of international celebrities, such as British explorer and linguist Richard Burton, who stayed at the property in 1876. In June 1881, Kalakaua, the King of Hawaii, checked into Watson’s Hotel. Also known as the Merrie Monarch, he arrived in Mumbai to ascertain “the feasibility of populating his dominions with the inhabitants of this country”.

In February 1896, American writer Mark Twain stayed there, too. In Following the Equator, Twain describes his experiences in the opulent hotel. “The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d and embroidered, capped, and barefooted, and cotton-clad employees,” he wrote. “In the dining room, every man’s own private servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in Arabian Nights.”

But Watson’s sheen began to fade, largely as a result of its policy of catering to “Europeans only”. Rumour has it that Indian pioneer industrialist Jamsetji Tata – the country’s answer to John Rockefeller – was once denied entry to the hotel, making him so angry that he built the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai’s most celebrated five-star, which opened in 1903. With 400 rooms, electric lifts, lights, bars, smoking rooms and a hotel orchestra, the Taj Mahal Hotel set standards so high in the city that Watson’s Hotel began to be viewed as its older, tackier cousin.

A slow decline

It soon slipped further into ignominy. When King George V and Queen Mary of Britain – the Emperor and Empress of India at the time – visited Mumbai in 1911, Watson’s Hotel was not even in the reckoning for their accommodation. Its newly painted exterior was also trashed by The Times of India. “Their majesties, King George V and Queen Mary, will have to pass what we can only suppose is an experiment in garishness, Watson’s Hotel, and that building is a good illustration of the dangers to which a sensitive public is exposed,” an editorial said.

At its nadir, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who later became the founder of Pakistan, was playing pool at Watson’s Hotel to earn a little extra money. The place had clearly fallen from grace and it would drop to even shabbier lows. By 1960, the once-majestic splendour of its 130 rooms and 20 suites was converted into tiny offices and tinier tenements in a crowded metropolis.

 In July last year, the building was evacuated when a portion of it collapsed. Courtesy Nirman Chowdhury
 In July last year, the building was evacuated when a portion of it collapsed. Courtesy Nirman Chowdhury

“An astonishing sight greets the tourist visiting Mumbai. Among all the grand Victorian buildings in the centre of town is a huge edifice visibly in the process of collapse,” The Victorian Web says. “Large posters warn of its instability and yet incredibly it is still inhabited, not only by lawyers’ offices but also by families. You venture inside at your own peril to be greeted by an incredible scene of decrepitude and an array of electrical wiring of nightmarish danger.”

In July last year, one person died when a portion of the fourth-floor balcony collapsed, crushing a taxi. It was at this point that MHADA ordered the building be evacuated. That was easier said than done at Mumbai’s version of The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.

More than 130 tenants were moved out – among them about 20 residential, as well as legal firms, an Iranian cafe and Mumbai’s oldest tailors, Smart & Hollywood – but they have demanded a clearer plan from the government. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage is also expected to fight any plans for Esplanade Mansion to be demolished. After all, the building is part of India’s heritage and should not simply be demolished at will.

Updated: July 1, 2019 07:13 PM

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