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Mumbai's iconic Esplanade Mansion barricaded, awaits redevelopment

The building, figuring on the World Monuments Watch's list of 100 most endangered buildings globally, falls in the UNESCO's recently declared Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles region in south Mumbai.

Mumbai Updated on: June 21, 2019 16:22 IST
Esplanade Mansion
Image Source : PTI

Esplanade Mansion

Mumbai's 150-year old landmark building, Esplanade Mansion, has been barricaded and a footpath beside it has also been cordoned off as it awaits a nod for redevelopment, a top official said here on Friday.

"We would have liked to restore it since it's a world-class monument. However, the cast iron used for its construction is not available now. So, we await the Bombay High Court orders for its redevelopment under the guidance of Heritage Conservation experts," Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board (MBRRB) Chairman Vinod Ghosalkar told IANS.

The building, figuring on the World Monuments Watch's list of 100 most endangered buildings globally, falls in the UNESCO's recently declared Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles region in south Mumbai.

Ghosalkar said that while all five dozen odd remaining tenants have already vacated the building, there are concerns about its stability and potential risk to pedestrians and traffic on the adjacent road in view of the approaching monsoons.

The MBRRB wanted to barricade the building last July when a part of a fourth-floor balcony collapsed and crushed a taxi parked on the road. In July 2005, two balconies had crashed killing one person and injuring another six.

In view of its creaky condition, the Bombay High Court last April ordered all remaining tenants - residential and commercial - to quit by May 15 and the Supreme Court extended the deadline to May 30, which has been complied with.

Known as the erstwhile super-deluxe "Watson's Esplanade Hotel", it was built for its British owner, John H. Watson, by the architect Rowland M. Ordish at the prime Kala Ghoda site between 1867-1869, with imported cast iron and a sleek finishing in teak and mahogany.

It functioned as a popular hotel with 130 rooms and 20 suites, patronised by Mumbai's elite and Europeans - long before other luxury hotels like the Hotel Taj Mahal Palace came up - for around a hundred years before it was shut down in the 1960s.

The building had already gone down in history as the first Indian venue where the Lumiere Brothers screened their short films collection - each barely 30-45 seconds long - on their Cinematographe (projector) during their historic world tour in 1896.

They included: "Entry Of A Cinematographe", "Arrival Of A Train, "The Sea Bath", "A Demolition", "Leaving The Factory" and "Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels" screened in one of the large rooms of the hotel, with a grand entry fee of Re 1 per patron.

Incidentally, this was a good 17 years before the Father of Indian Cinema, Dhundiraj G. Phalke alias Dadasaheb Phalke, made his first full length feature film "Raja Harishchandra" (1913), marking the birth of the world's biggest film industry, Bollywood.

Earlier in 1896, one prominent guest at the hotel was the legendary American writer Samuel L. Clemens, renowned by his pen-name Mark Twain, who wrote about the Mumbai crows he saw from his balcony in the book, "Following The Equator", during his three-month sojourn in India.

Subsequently, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan and a lawyer, used to play pool in the hotel for some extra pocket money.

After its demise as a hotel, the building's new owner converted into a commercial complex with small offices and cubicles, mainly leased out to lawyers who could hop across the road to Bombay High Court and the Mumbai City Civil and Sessions Court.

Though the MBRRB and Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) attempted its repairs 10 years ago, the works was abandoned, while this year MHCC also voted to restore it.

However, a report by the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) put the final nail in the coffin, ruling out any possibility of repairs and restoration, and leaving the way open for redevelopment, said Ghosalkar.

On the costs to be borne for the redevelopment project, Ghosalkar said the high court has already said it will decide on the cost distribution between the current owner, the tenants and the MBRRB after the work is completed.

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