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Esplanade's glory days, and a certain Mr Watson

Today, as passersby cross the dilapidated Esplanade Mansion at Kala Ghoda, they might probably be unaware that this long-forgotten landmark once played a huge part of India’s grand cinematic and cultural history, and remains a treasure as far as its architectural high points go.

Back in 1896, on this day, Watson’s Hotel, the earlier avatar, was the venue for the first-ever (silent) film screening on the Indian subcontinent by none other than the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematographe.

This rundown structure remains one of the earliest surviving examples of cast-iron architecture in India. The entire frame of this building was fabricated in England, and was erected on-site between 1867 and 1869.

Named after its first owner, John Watson, this whites-only hotel was a hit in its glory days with the colonists, and was the place to be seen at and stay at, well before the Taj Mahal Hotel came up at the Apollo Bunder.

Of course, the most popular myth centred on it is that the staff at Watson’s denied entry to baron Jamsetji Tata, who decided to build a bigger, better hotel where all were allowed — the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel.

Curious, we decided to pore over dusty archived notes on this neglected jewel, only to discover that the man behind it — John Watson was an enterprising and wealthy British merchant, who gave Bombay its first large, luxurious hotel, though its doors were only open to the Europeans.

Watson owned a drapery store south of Churchgate Street, and successfully out-bidded others in securing prime land at the Esplanade. He designed and built Watson’s without any chief architect, using red stone plinth, while the bases for the columns and the plinth came directly from Penrith in Cumberland, UK. He even brought down maids, waiters and waitresses from England to ensure the memsahibs and officers didn’t get homesick.

In fact, hard as it might be to imagine today, Watson’s served as a landmark in its time for ships entering the harbour! There’s more, too. One of the hotel’s most popular guests was Mark Twain, who went on to write about the crows he saw from his balcony in Following the Equator.

By the 1960s, the hotel had to close down and was partitioned into tiny cubicles that were rented out. Today, this 83,000-sq ft property, believed to be valued at Rs 450 crore, waits to be restored and redeveloped entirely, and one hopes, to its past glory, as reported by mid-day in July 2013.

To sign off, here’s a poignant observation crafted by the great Twain, while on a night stroll during that stay-in, in 1896, “…everywhere on the ground lay sleeping natures hundreds and hundreds. They lay stretched at full length and tightly wrapped in blankets heads and all. Their attitude and rigidity counterfeited death.”

The writer is Features Editor of mid-day

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