The Watson’s Hotel of yore, now known as Esplanade Mansion, has seen two centuries turn and take their toll on its strength. From a hotel that characterized European chic in its heyday, it has fallen into the ruinous folds of nostalgia, greeting visitors with a BMC notice declaring it dangerous for habitation.
But now, this heritage structure in the heart of south Mumbai, which is India’s only surviving cast iron building, has been marked for resuscitation.
With the building, which came up between 1860-63, consistently claiming a spot on the list of the most perilous building in the city in recent years, its tenants and owner have decided to jointly redevelop it. But they want to retain its cast iron frame, considering that it’s the country’s only surviving cast-iron structure.
For the makeover, the occupants of the five-storey building will require a no-objection certificate from MHADA, and the owner says they have already applied for it.
Sadik Ali, owner of Esplanade Mansion, said, “As soon as we get the NOC from MHADA the work on the building will start. We want to redevelop it jointly with the tenants.” Ali came to be the proprietor in early 80s after the building’s erstwhile owners, the Tatas, sold it to him.
The building’s built-up area is 83,000 sq ft and it will get no FSI, so even after redevelopment, the area will remain the same. The estimated worth of the property is approximately Rs 450 crore.
‘Sound and strong’
Curiously, even with civic authorities, conservation architects and historians ruing the Mansion’s disrepair, inhabitants think the edifice is just fine and will continue to gaze over Kalaghoda for the decades to follow.
Mahmood Hussain, a tenant of Army Restaurant which has been in the building since 1932, claims all occupants believe the Mansion is not decrepit, “but if the redevelopment is being done, we all are with the landlord.” He said, “Nothing will happen to the building for the next 150 years, but, yes, we along with the landlord are going for redevelopment.”
Owner Ali said, “The building is not dilapidated. We have got letters from several engineers to prove this. The engineers had conducted a structural audit and stated that the building can stand for more than 50 years.”
A tenant who didn’t wished to be named said, “The landlord has been trying to redevelop the building for a long time. If it’s finally happening, everyone is better off, but we hope that our interests are taken care of.”
The landlord said he’d be giving the tenants the space they currently occupy. Importantly, he said the building would be done up in a way that its heritage tag isn’t affected.
Legacy worth saving
Historian Deepak Rao said, “I have seen the building when it was in good shape, but now it’s falling apart. It’s better to restore it rather than having it come crashing down one day. If redeveloped, while following all heritage-related rules, it would stand tall at the same place and remain with us.”
Dwelling on its history a bit, Rao said, “The hotel occupied one of the loveliest places in the city. The first movie was screened here.”
He was referring to the debut of motion pictures in India on July 7, 1896, which Europeans paid a rupee each to watch at Watson’s.
Rao added, “It’s the only cast iron building left in the city. The hotel’s annex building on Apollo Bunder is now referred to as Dhanraj Mahal.”
Senior lawyer Majid Memon, who formerly had his office in the building, said, “The redevelopment of Esplanade Mansion is good news. The building has great heritage value but has been in a bad state for a very long time. It should be redeveloped. Only then will it be habitable.”
Memon shifted to Surya Mahal in April this year.
Area of Esplanade Mansion in sq ft
Rs 450 cr
The estimated worth of the property
>> Esplanade Mansion, earlier known as Watson's Hotel, is India’s oldest surviving cast iron building. Named after its founder, John H Watson, the building was planned in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863
>> It was a whites-only hotel, and the apartheid did not come in the way of its becoming the city’s swankiest hotel: a five-star in an era when five-stars were still a thing in the future. 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, 1896
>> A popular myth says the staff at Watson’s denied Jamsetji Tata access to the hotel. In retaliation, Tata opened the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel near the Gateway of India in 1903
>> After Watson’s death, the hotel lost its popularity to the formidable Taj. In the 1960s, Watson’s was closed down and eventually partitioned into small cubicles, which were rented out