The Esplanade conundrum

Once among the swankiest hotels this side of London, Watson’s Hotel, now Esplanade Mansion, is a poor reflection of its past. Erected between 1867 and 1869 by John Watson, a wealthy draper, the building is the oldest in the Kala Ghoda area. When the heritage conservation act came into force in 1995, the four-storeyed structure was declared a Grade II A. “At that time we thought the conservation committee would give us money to restore the building,” says 65 year-old Saadiq Ali, owner of Esplanade Mansion. “However, we were told that the government has no money and that we’d have to figure it out on our own.”

This is representative of all heritage conservation issues in the city, says conservation architect Abha Narain Lamba. “The government only pays for the restoration of public buildings. Restoration of private buildings becomes the onus of their owners,” she adds.

Low rents
And it doesn’t come cheap. The last time Ali made a move to restore the building — which he bought in the 1980s from the Tatas — the architects quoted a price of Rs 1.5 crore. Ali earns his living from the rent he gets from various shops and residences in the building, which is riddled with mezzanine constructions. A 2001 study by students of the Rizvi College of Architecture, spearheaded by Lamba, put the number of units in the building at nearly 150. This includes a few residential quarters as well. Refusing to quote the rent he gets, Ali only says, “I get enough to live by.” He adds that that amount is not enough for him to be able to restore the place.

This is a problem faced by most owners of heritage property, says Heta Pandit, a heritage activist. Though they may be in plush areas of the city, because the tenants are protected under the Bombay Rent Control Act 1947, the rents are frozen in time.

Being a Grade II A structure — under which buildings are said to have regional or local importance though they are lower in scale of importance than buildings classified under Grade I — internal changes for adaptive reuse are generally permitted but external changes are subject to scrutiny. Caution is also exercised about the kind of repair work allowed.

In 2006, the building was placed on the Global Watch List of 100 World Endangered Monuments by the New York-based World Monuments Fund. A few years later the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) declared it a highly dilapidated building, and warned its tenants against continuing there. Even today a photocopy of one of these warnings is pasted on one of the doors of the building. But the occupants are adamant that the building is safe.

The Esplanade Mansion is in a bad state as the pictures above show. It looks extremely unsafe, like it may collapse at any time. Pics/ Shadab Khan

After much tussle, MHADA was allowed to conduct repairs in the building — provided that the building’s occupants weren’t evicted — but 61 year-old Ali Mohammed, owner of the Army Restaurant on the ground floor, says that the heritage conservation committee constantly came in MHADA’s way. “They would constantly tell the MHADA contractor — who was doing a decent job — that the cast iron beams must be replaced with similar beams etc. Who will find such material these days?” Though the occupants insist that MHADA comes once in a while to continue a little repair work, they admit that work has been progressing slowly.

The executive engineer of A division, MHADA’s repair board, RB Lohar says it’s been at least a year since any repair work was conducted on the building. “The repair cost is running into crores, and as per norms original material — such as the cast iron beams — must have appropriate replacements. The tenants should contribute towards this amount.”

He adds that in July, Ali had sent a letter saying he was interested in getting the repairs done but the matter hasn’t progressed. “Given the current situation, however,” Lohar says, “the building cannot be repaired.”

Little time
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who has been on the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, says that there are ways of circumventing these obstacles, but the government would need to help. The restoration of such structures, he says, should be handed to private builders in exchange of equivalent FSI for plots of land in other parts of the city.

He also suggests that there be a repository where material removed from old structures, such as wooden beams, are deposited and made available for less than market price for restoration purposes. Some of these proposals have been put forth to the government, but decisions on them have been slow.

A look at unit number 38, which has lost half its floor, makes you wonder if the building has that kind of time. 

Why should we save the Esplanade?
>> Formerly known as Watson’s Hotel, this was the first building to come up in the Kala Ghoda area
>> It is unlike the other buildings in the area — the Army and Navy Building was built in neo-classical style and the Elphinstone College in Romanesque tradition.
>> Esplanade has a unique cast iron
frame and the beams and bricks, were shipped from England
>> In 1896, a screening of the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematograph was held here
>> Among the hotel’s notable guests was Mark Twain, who wrote about the city’s crows he saw outside his balcony in Following the Equator 

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