Esplanade Mansion: '95% safe' or 100% unsafe

Back in the day, the handsome façade of this imposing cast-iron edifice beckoned ships coming in to harbour from the sea. Inside its hallowed halls, the Lumiere Brothers presented their silent film - the first to be screened in India. Today, paan stains and slime humble the columns of this crumbling, decrepit structure, and the atrium, once a fine-dining hub, is occupied by heaps of garbage.

Meet the present-day avatar of what was once the Watson Hotel - Esplanade Mansion. The building, so far untouched by conservationists, now lays claim to a different, rather shameful distinction: it tops MHADA’s list of dangerous and dilapidated buildings in the city. The occupants, however, seem to be stuck in the past, and are in complete denial of the threat it poses to their lives and livelihoods. They claim that it is ‘95 per cent’ safe, and refuse to vacate it.

Named after its original owner, John Watson, the Esplanade Mansion was planned in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863. In its heydays, it was one of the city’s finest accommodations. Pictures taken from the book Bombay: The Cities Within. Farooq Issa/Phillips Antiques

Esplanade Mansion is now an office complex for many advocates, favoured by them owing to its proximity to the Bombay High Court and the City Civil Court. MHADA’s list, however, has certified the nineteenth century heritage structure as a dangerous one, which poses a threat to those who use its premises. These occupants, however, claim that the authorities are making a mountain out of a molehill.

The 142-year-old building in Kala Ghoda stands out like a sore thumb in the line of magnificent heritage structures in Kala Ghoda

Rajesh Singh, a lawyer, sits on the first floor of the building, of which some parts are crumbling. Many of the erstwhile occupants of neighbouring offices have vacated the building, but Singh has stayed put. Asked what motivated him to hang around in a building declared dangerous by the authorities, he said, “I am not saying this on the basis of my assumption, but based on research done by several professionals. This building is 95 per cent safe and only requires repairs. The authorities should repair the building soon and restore it to its past glory,” said Singh.

Three balconies of the Esplanade building collapsed in 2005. Pic/Bipin Kokate, Sayed Sameer Abedi

Advocate Ejaz Naqvi, whose office lies in the same building, insists that the building is still strong, attributing its durability to the fact that it is not made of concrete and modern-day building materials. “The building stands on a frame of cast iron, and other floors are made of wood. It’s strong, and won’t fall. Even dilapidated buildings need to be graded. If that is done, then Esplanade Mansion would fall in the least dangerous category,” he said confidently.

Officials at MHADA, however, begged to differ. MHADA’s Repair Board Chairman Prasad Lad said, “The building is 100 per cent dilapidated, but the occupants aren’t agreeing to vacate it. Out of all the dilapidated buildings in Mumbai, the occupants of this building alone have resisted evacuation efforts; in the rest of the buildings, 100 per cent evacuation has been done. We want special permission from the government to vacate the building and save the occupants.”

Piece of history
>> Esplanade Mansion, earlier known as Watson's Hotel, is India's oldest surviving cast iron building. Named after its original owner, John Watson, the building was planned in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863
>> It was a whites-only hotel, and one of the city’s finest before the dawn of the Taj Mahal era. One of the hotel’s most notable guests was Mark Twain, who later wrote about the crows he saw outside his balcony in Following the Equator
>> It hosted the first silent motion picture screening in India, presented by the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematographe, on July 7, 1869
>> A popular myth surrounding the hotel says that the staff at Watson’s Hotel denied Jamshedji Tata access to the hotel. In retaliation, he opened the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Gateway of India, in 1903
>> After Watson’s death, the hotel lost its popularity to Taj Hotel. In the 1960s it was closed and eventually partitioned into small cubicles, which were rented out

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