In the heart of Kalaghoda, nestled beside the ever-busy Bombay High Court, stands the nearly 130-year-old Esplanade Mansion. Passersby wouldn’t realise it, but the somewhat shabby building was a cultural and historical landmark for Mumbai in the 1860s in its original avatar as Watson’s Hotel, with such visitors as Mark Twain and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The only remaining such structure in India with a framework built entirely of cast iron, Watson’s Hotel was conceptualised in England and constructed in the 1860s, named after the swish hotel’s owner John Watson. It quickly became a favourite among the elite Europeans of colonial Bombay, its swish interiors providing a world-class ambiance to patrons.
Its current state is in stark contrast to its former glory. Much of the building now comprises cubbyhole offices that are rented out, the once regal stairway a mass of cobwebs and missing marble slabs and cheap plywood replacements.
“The entire structure has been encroached upon. The building has been used and overused for a long time now,” says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who prepared a report on the structure in 1998-99.
In 2005, the building was included among the World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments.
“The building is unsafe and uninhabitable. There is no proper water supply. It is not possible to redevelop the building – it can only be repaired and maintained,” said an advocate, who shifted out of the building in December 2014 on account of its deteriorating condition.
As a protected structure, repairs to Esplanade Mansion are complex. The landlord and tenants decided to undertake the repairs in 2013, but work is yet to start.
“We have obtained the no-objection certificate from MHADA and are awaiting the same from the BMC. We will repair and maintain it, the cast-iron structure will remain intact,” said Sadiq Ali, the current owner who acquired the building in 1979.
It’s urban legend in Mumbai that Watson’s Hotel owed its gradual decline to the Taj Mahal Hotel, built at Apollo Bunder by Jamshetji Tata in 1903. In fact, it is believed that Tata was not allowed to enter Watson’s – only Europeans were welcome – driving him to build the Taj.
Before its fall from favour, Watson’s Hotel was a popular Bombay landmark, a motion picture by the Lumiere Brothers was premiered here in July 1896. The 70-odd tenants, mostly lawyers, know little of the building’s legacy.
With no proper strategy in place to maintain the structure, its condition worsens. “There is a need for change in policy, since the building cannot be treated like any other structure. Investors need to be found to help restore the place. Either way, it appears to be a no-win situation right now,” said Lambah.
A few facts
* Hotel was conceptualised in England and constructed in the 1860s. It quickly became a favourite among the elite Europeans of colonial Bombay
* It’s urban legend in Mumbai that Watson’s Hotel owed its gradual decline to the Taj Mahal Hotel
* In 2005, the building was included among the World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments