Mumbai: Heritage experts question renovation of iconic Army Restaurant

Updated: Dec 07, 2018, 09:32 IST | Fiona Fernandez and Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

As iconic Army Restaurant in the endangered Esplanade Mansion is revamped, conservationists and heritage community question the decision in context of the structure's precarious condition

Heritage experts are worried that the restaurant's renovation has weakened Esplanade Mansion, which was declared among the city's most dangerous buildings in 2010. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Heritage experts are worried that the restaurant's renovation has weakened Esplanade Mansion, which was declared among the city's most dangerous buildings in 2010. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Inside the iconic Army Restaurant — revamped and relaunched as Sabalan: The Taste of Persia — everything is shiny and brand new, from the air-conditioners and chandeliers to the wooden panelling and ornate embellishments on the pillars. Step outside, though, and the 150-year-old building housing the restaurant is literally crumbling around it. Conservationists are worried that the restaurant's facelift might have worsened matters, and could further endanger the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Situated on the ground floor of the 150-year-old Esplanade Mansion at Kala Ghoda, the Army Restaurant was renovated and reopened last week as Sabalan: The Taste of Persia, serving cuisines ranging from North Indian to Persian. The wooden panelling on the walls, sparkling chandeliers and air-conditioned interiors reflect a switch in the ambiance of this once quaint corner.

rmy Restaurant was relaunched as Sabalan: The Taste of Persia last week
Army Restaurant was relaunched as Sabalan: The Taste of Persia last week

It's an entirely different world from the Esplanade Mansion, which is stained with age and falling to pieces. The building was once an engineering marvel, and is now probably India's oldest cast iron structure still in use.

But in July this year, a balcony collapsed from the building, crushing an unoccupied black-and-yellow taxi parked below. In 2005, another portion had collapsed and killed a pedestrian walking below the structure. 

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Following the July incident, the building's dilapidated condition was once again in the limelight. A few months ago, the Bombay High Court approached IIT-Bombay to carry out a structural audit. According to a court order accessed by mid-day, because there was no cooperation from the landlord, the audit was delayed.

Experts worried
The question that heritage experts are asking is whether such a structure, already deemed as endangered, can withstand any kind of tinkering in its already precarious condition. They have also questioned how the owners of the restaurant got the nod for the renovation.

Army restaurant
Pic courtesy/ Bombaywalla Historical Works

The owners said they carried out only tenantable repairs, and took all necessary permissions
The owners said they carried out only tenantable repairs, and took all necessary permissions. Pic courtesy Bombaywalla Historical Works

"Owners are entitled to revamp the interiors since it hasn't been evacuated, but being an unsafe building, I must say that it is a brave effort. It's like partying on the deck of the Titanic. We need to look at the larger picture with regards to this dilapidated structure," said Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect who had prepared a dossier to convince UNESCO to finally recognise the building — as part of Mumbai's Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble — as a World Heritage Site in June.

Owners say
But when mid-day visited the restaurant last weekend, an air of normalcy pervaded, along with the whiff of cooked meat. The crowd-puller kheema pao was a notable miss across the wooden tables. Instead, patrons seated on red-coated chairs sipped on Persian Margarita mocktails and tucked into the new 'hit' item: a 1.5- metre-long kebab.

 Probably India's oldest cast iron structure still in use, Esplanade Mansion has already experienced two partial collapses
Probably India's oldest cast iron structure still in use, Esplanade Mansion has already experienced two partial collapses

Reza Najmi, a partner at the restaurant, narrated how the revamp was inspired by an interview Academy-award winning, Iranian film director Majid Majidi had given to a newspaper during a visit to Mumbai. Majidi had mourned the lack of authentic Iranian restaurants here. So Najmi and his partners decided to renovate the restaurant that was also plagued with leakage issues. "We added some colour with Iranian carpets on the walls. But more importantly, we've flown down chefs from Iran to cook authentic Persian food, unlike Bombay's so-called Iranian hotels," he explained.

The renovation took five-and-a-half months to complete. The partners maintain that no part of the structure was affected and all necessary permissions were acquired. In fact, the partners were encouraged by MHADA, they claimed. "We have actually made the structure stronger. We've consulted with engineers; none of the columns have been affected with this activity, neither have we extended the area. Instead, it has shrunk," Najmi asserts.

Tenantable repairs
Sadiq Ali, the building's landlord also insisted that the renovation was above board: "The owners of Army Restaurant took our permission for tenantable repairs. I had told them to ensure that the structure is not affected, and it wasn't. Our building is structurally strong and needs repairs instead of being pulled down."

A senior civic official explained that in a dilapidated building, tenantable repairs refer to small repairs that are done to make the interiors more habitable, without touching the original structure.

This doesn't convince Nayana Kathpalia, trustee, OVAL Trust, which had also worked closely on the UNESCO dossier. "It's one thing to do tenantable repairs in a building, and another to do it at Esplanade Mansion, which is crumbling. A passer-by has already lost his life while walking under the structure [in 2005]. During the UNESCO presentation in Bahrain in June, the technical advisory committee had specifically identified this building as a dangerous one," she said.

Answers are hard to come as one authority passes the buck to the next. DK Jagdale, chief officer of MHADA's repair and reconstruction board said, "The issue is still pending in court and what needs to be done to the structure, whether repairs or demolition, has not been instructed. Whatever tenantable repairs take place, the BMC might be aware of it as we don't check it."

When mid-day contacted Kiran Dighavkar, assistant municipal commissioner of A ward, he said, "There were some additions to the restaurant, which we had objected to, and they immediately complied and removed them. Currently, these are tenantable repairs for which our permission is not required." BMC and MHADA sources informed mid-day that the fate of Esplanade mansion is yet to be taken. The next hearing is on December 17, revealed a BMC official.

Input by Chetna Yerunkar

Aesthetic cost, too
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari said, "The Esplanade House is well known for its cast and wrought iron construction. These details were visible throughout its exterior. But, with the Irani joint being upgraded to a restaurant, the interventions done are fairly prominent and detract from the overall character of the building, which is known as the earliest steel frame building in the city."

Restoration needed
Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah reminds us of an initiative from a decade ago. "The state government had launched Vision Maharashtra, where it had published its vision with full-page announcements in newspapers. One of the points was to restore heritage buildings, and they had specifically mentioned Esplanade Mansion. With the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag, it becomes even more paramount that it be restored urgently."

The building is reason for stress even among cultural champions of the city like Maneck Davar, chairman of the Kala Ghoda Association. "Safety is a major concern, with the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival coming up in a few months. I've seen people avoid using the footpath below the façade. We must look at preserving the health of the oldest cast iron building in the city."

Nayana Kathpalia, trustee, OVAL Trust, said the authorities must act fast to save this landmark that once hosted the city's rich and famous. "The tenants can evacuate and return after it is deemed safe. In the interim, all possible efforts must be taken to strengthen the site. The state can help with funding. They should bring the best available expertise who can relate to its sensitive and historic context."

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