India’s Most Fragile World Heritage Building

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    It’s hard to miss. A majestic yet crumbling edifice made of cast iron, it exudes strength and solidity despite years of neglect. This is the famed Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda precinct in South Mumbai.

    Now known as Esplanade Mansion and part of the cluster of Victorian-era monuments that were listed as a World Heritage Site in 2018, it scarcely betrays the glory and grace that its tag implies. In fact, it can barely stand at all, for it is on the verge of collapse!

    Watson’s Hotel has been a spectator to more than 150 years of Mumbai’s evolution.

    It is a building that epitomises all that is wrong with our heritage management even though conservationists have been fighting tooth and nail to protect it for decades.

    To understand why, we need to go back to the beginning. By 25th August 1864, the old British fort walls had been brought down, freeing huge swathes of land in the heart of South Bombay. This was a time when trade, especially cotton, was booming and merchants were becoming millionaires. One such man was John Hudson Watson, a successful cloth merchant who had a large store on Churchgate Street, now Veer Nariman Road. When the newly freed-up land was put up for auction, Watson bid a princely sum of Rs 110 per square yard for a plot on the Esplanade, to build his dream hotel.

    He wanted his hotel to stand out and so he chose a minimalist iron framework in a neighbourhood of turrets, gabled roofs, stones and arches. He was possibly influenced by the evolution of technology and as a sign of modernism. A significant influence may have been the Crystal Palace, which had taken London by storm in 1851.

    A Grand Hotel of Many Firsts

    The design of Watson’s Hotel was created by Rowland Mason Ordish, a British structural engineer best known for the Winter Garden in Dublin, Cavenagh Bridge in Singapore and for his work on the iconic Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, built for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The columns were manufactured at the Phoenix Foundry Company in Derby and sent to Bombay by ship.

    Construction of the building began in 1867 and it was completed and fitted by the autumn of 1870. It was a marvel of its times and the structural frame of the building was made entirely of pre-fabricated cast iron columns and beams. This is also why the structure has survived for 150 years.

    Interestingly, architects still cite the building as a trend-setter, and Jonathan Clarke of English Heritage (a prominent heritage organisation in the UK) has pointed out that it is the first example of a multi-storey, habitable building whose load is borne entirely by an iron framework. This makes it a landmark in the development of the skyscraper. The iron frame is the precursor of the steel frame, which eventually gave us the skyscraper.

    Ironically, despite the effort he made to see the project through, Watson didn’t get to see his dream project in all its glory. He had moved back to England before his hotel was ready on 4th February 1871. The hotel was managed by his son John Watson Jr.

    According to Mumbai-based Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), the original design and layout of the building had a provision for 130 rooms. The grand, central atrium was surrounded by dining rooms, shops and a colonnade of cast iron columns on the ground floor, with the site of the present day Army and Navy building serving as a garden to the south of the hotel, which could be visited from the atrium.

    A scene of grandeur greeted all those who entered the doors of this lavish hotel built to capitalise on the growth of Bombay as Urbs Prima in Indis, or, the First City of India.

    With its double-height ceilings, grand atrium, Minton-tiled floors, exclusive restaurants and opulent rooms, it was the ultimate symbol of luxury in 19th century Bombay. It was a five star hotel that preceded the idea itself!

    Watson’s Hotel was called the ‘Esplanade Hotel’ when first opened. It boasted India’s first steam-powered elevator. It was well ventilated, not only by design but also by punkhawallas (fan bearers) who served each room. And, almost all the rooms had en-suite bathrooms. The hotel had its quirks too – the height of each floor was less than the previous one, the ground floor being 20 feet high, the first floor 17 feet, 2nd floor 15 feet and the 3rd and 4th being 14 feet high.

    During its heyday, Watson’s Hotel hosted noted American author Mark Twain, who mentions the crows he saw outside his balcony in his book Following The Equator. The hotel also finds mention in two of Rudyard Kipling’s works The Man Who Would Be King And Other Stories and Plain Tales From The Hills. The first movie to be screened in India was also here – in fact, Watson’s Hotel was one of seven venues where the Lumiere brothers screened their films while on a world tour of their moving pictures. The screening here took place on 7th July 1896.

    Change In Fortune

    However, the turn of the 20th century brought much competition for Watson’s Hotel, and by 1920, it ceased functioning as a hotel. It has since passed through many hands and was even renamed ‘Esplanade Mansion’, a name that remains to date.

    In the 1960s, a new owner subdivided the building into residences and commercial premises. In the newly independent India, lawyers saw its proximity to the high court as a significant benefit, due to which many of them set up their chambers here. Estimates are that the building houses 15 residences and 200 commercial establishments today. This changed the pattern of use significantly from its original design and also led to it falling under the Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act 1947, also known as the Bombay Rent Control Act.

    Alas, the Act has had a debilitating impact on heritage and other buildings in Mumbai, including Watson’s Hotel, which it is still popularly called. Legislated as a temporary measure in the post-World War II era, to rein in inflation and mindless profiteering, the Act has persisted over the decades. It allows the owners of many historic properties to change only minimal rent, far less than the rate of inflation and market rates, and cannot get their premises evacuated either.

    This has led to a situation where tenants can, for all practical purposes, stay on indefinitely while the owners earn negligible income from their properties. As a result, they have no incentive to maintain and invest in these buildings, many of which have thus fallen into disrepair. Even the Supreme Court of India has, in December 1997, called the practice of fixing a ‘standard rate’ as being ‘no longer reasonable’ but the act and its untenable provisions continue.

    Watson’s Hotel has been a victim of this imbroglio and decades of neglect have pushed it to the brink. As far back as 1998-99, UDRI undertook a study to document the state of the building to facilitate future conservation strategies for the building as a part of the ‘Fort Management Plan’ they had created. But nothing seems to have come of it.

    The building was even put on the World Monuments Fund’s 2006 World Monuments Watch, a list of the world’s most endangered monuments, in July 2005. Another city monument which was once on the list, the Royal Opera House, has been restored beautifully.

    Unfortunately, Watson’s Hotel has not been so lucky.

    Shortly after being put on the World Monuments Watch list, two balconies of the building collapsed, killing one person and injuring six on 1st July 2005.

    Another dangerous accident, in July 2018, saw another balcony collapse and crush a taxi parked on the road below. Thankfully, no one was injured. Today, just walking close to the building is hazardous!

    In fact, in 2007 and 2011, the state housing board, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), declared it as dangerous and it has asked its occupants to vacate – multiple times – but to no avail.

    Can It Be Saved?

    Ironically, despite its dilapidated condition, Watson’s Hotel became a World Heritage Site as part of the ‘Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai’ tag assigned by UNESCO in 2018. This includes around 100 buildings dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, the one major issue UNESCO flagged at the time was the condition of Watson’s Hotel building or Esplanade Mansion. It said: “Most buildings of the nominated property are in a fair or good shape of conservation, with two exceptions. The first is the former Watson’s Hotel, which is known at present as Esplanade Mansion. It is listed as a Grade II A building and is in need of urgent conservation intervention.”

    The Paris-based International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises UNESCO on World Heritage Sites, has urged the Maharashtra government to undertake urgent conservation of the building. In response, the state government has clarified that “all proposals for alterations or modifications of cess buildings shall be presented to the Heritage Conservation Committee”. However, no action seems to have been taken to date.

    There was an intervention by the Bombay High Court in 2019. In April 2019, the court ordered that the building be evacuated and also asked the Civil Engineering Department of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay to conduct a structural audit on it. Noted conservation architect Vikas Dilawari told Live History India, “If conservation can work here, all conservationists in India have a bright future.”

    According to recent reports, in January-February 2020, the building’s landlord, Sadik Ali Noorani, along with the legal tenants of the building had agreed to shell out Rs 50 crores towards the restoration and repair. This came after the Bombay High Court had directed the landlord of Esplanade Mansion to submit an estimate of the cost to conserve and restore the building.

    Watson’s Hotel is intrinsically connected to the city of Mumbai and its evolution from a trading port to a commercial hub, and a grand city. Without the Lumiere brothers and their first screening, there might not have been a Dadasaheb Phalke, and without Watson’s Hotel to inspire, modern skyscrapers may have not dotted so many skylines.

    This building must be saved.

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