Heritage structure in need of repairs

Heritage structure in need of repairs

Heritage structure in need of repairs

Way back on  July 7, 1896, the Lumiere Brothers showcased six films here – marking the beginning of the Indian film industry.  The legendary American author and humourist Mark Twain, stayed here and wrote about the city's crows he saw outside his balcony in Following the Equator. Muhammad Ali Jinnah used to play pool in the hotel, to make a little extra money for himself. According to a popular myth, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata decided to build the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower – located off Gateway of India -- after he was refused entry to this "whites only" place.   

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the British explorer and geographer and writer, who wrote The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, too had stayed here in 1876. It also finds mention in the writings of Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, who wrote The Jungle Book, Kim and several other novels.

It may be the earliest surviving example of cast-iron architecture in India. If one visits the Kala Ghoda area of south Mumbai, popularly known as the art district of Mumbai, one can see this cast-iron structure. It is known as the Watson’s Hotel or the Esplanade Mansion. Neglect of the building has resulted in decay and, despite its listing as a Grade II–A heritage structure, the building is now in a dilapidated state – and efforts to restore it, has not yielded any results.

The building is located next to the Fort campus of  the University of Mumbai, adjacent to the Mumbai Sessions Court and opposite the Kala Ghoda square and Jehangir Art Gallery.  During the British Raj, it was a symbol of colonial splendour, but now it is in a bad shape.

The five-storeyed Watson’s Hotel housed 130 guest rooms, as well as a lobby, restaurant and a bar at the ground level. The hotel also had a 30x9 metres (98 ft × 30 ft) atrium, originally used as a ballroom, with a glass skylight. Now it has several small offices, mostly occupied by lawyers.  

Currently, Esplanade Mansion is the address of about 130 tenants, of which 45 are residential and the rest commercial. There is a paan shop, stationery shops on the ground floor and also the famous Army Restaurant, an Irani café. The Watson's Hotel closed in 1960 and then it changed many hands.

Named after its original owner, John Watson, the building was fabricated in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863. It was designed by civil engineer Rowland Mason Ordish, who was also associated with the St Pancras Station in London. The external cast-iron frame closely resembles other high-profile 19th century buildings such as London's Crystal Palace.

In 1999, a survey carried out by the Mumbai-based Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) found the building was suffering from "severe structural distress", but nothing much happened. In 2005, a small part of the structure caved in during monsoon, reflecting the need for urgent restoration.  The building was listed in June 2005 on the list of “100 World Endangered Monuments” by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a New York-based NGO.

“You can visit entire Mumbai, you would not be able to find this kind of a structure,” said Rafique Baghdadi, a veteran journalist, writer, film critic and expert on Mumbai. “The kind of history attached to this place makes it more important,” he said. Esplande Mansion of Watson’s Hotel is surrounded by heritage structures and the Oval Maidan.

What makes the building interesting and important? “The design involved the import of hundreds of cast iron girders. Arranged from top to bottom, these girders formed a sort of grand metal bird-cage. This sort of design actually exposed bare metal. It was in fact, the first multi-storey habitable building in the world in which all loads, including those of the brick walls, were carried on an iron frame. In that sense, it is the earliest pre-cursor to the modern-day skyscraper,” writes Mumbai expert Deepa Krishnan in her blog.

Tenants, several of them law firms serving the nearby Mumbai Sessions Court and Bombay High Court,  have told the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) that they will not leave the premises while repair work is carried out. In June 2010 the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) gave its approval for the work to be carried out by MHADA. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) too is concerned over the building’s current state.

“After the hotel closed in the 1960s, a private owner subdivided the building into residences and commercial spaces. More recently, tenancy laws have made it difficult for the owner to collect rents sufficient to maintain the building. After years of neglect, inappropriate additions, and minimum repairs, the cast iron structure is now failing; a portion of the building collapsed shortly after Watch listing,” according to the WMF. Sadik Ali, owner of Esplanade Mansion, however, wants it to be restored. He had become the proprietor in early 1980s after the building's erstwhile owners, sold it. The current owner, however, could not be contacted.

“We want it to be developed, but there are various issues. Whether it would be done in phases, or at one go. It is not known how much time it would take for redevelopment. There is not much money in cess account, which means the tenants too have to pay for redevelopment. Being a structure in heritage precincts, the landlord or the developer would not get floor space index,” said a tenant on condition of anonymity.

“For the purpose of redevelopment, the owners are required to accommodate the existing tenants in the newly constructed building but the owners are not ready to do this. The building is in a repairable condition," another tenant added.

A judicial matter involving various parties and stakeholders is before the Bombay High Court, which in June 2015 said the tenants should not be evicted from the premises.

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