Esplanade Mansion: Significant heritage, wilful neglect
Every passing year has dealt a further blow to the stability of its rare cast-iron structure, oldest of its kind in India
Esplanade Mansion has stood in its decrepit and dangerous ‘glory’ at the Kala Ghoda junction for decades now. Every passing year has dealt a further blow to the stability of its rare cast-iron structure, oldest of its kind in India. Each piece of renovation work undertaken within its cavernous and once-posh premises tinkered with the original design though its façade stood proud. Even as it grew visibly old and looked uncared for, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)-listed heritage structure formed the backdrop for the annual Kala Ghoda festival.
Now, as it stands on the cusp of being demolished, Esplanade Mansion raises an important question: Does Mumbai’s heritage and conservation governance have a fail-proof and imaginative model to retain, restore and renew its built heritage? Perhaps, not. If it did, the Esplanade Mansion would not have been allowed to languish and crumble up to the point that Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) report recommends its demolition and courts set a deadline for its tenants to vacate.
This has less to do with the vibrant and dedicated conservation movements and its leading lights, more to do with policies, policy-makers and politics around Mumbai’s built heritage. The former have worked hard to make conservation a significant issue in Mumbai, evolved a list of heritage structures with different grades, and raised resources to make a difference. Working with the municipal corporation or private owners, they have been able to restore a number of dilapidated heritage structures.
The latter have largely applied the law unimaginatively making it unviable for owners of heritage structures – thanks to the astoundingly low rents charged to tenants – to maintain or repair or even use them well. Between Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada) responsible for such cessed buildings, the municipal corporation’s Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and disinterested owners, heritage conservation has often been hit-and-miss. Esplanade Mansion is the latest casualty of this non-cogent and non-coherent approach.
Even as Mhada pushed tenants to vacate the structure to prepare for demolition, it asked the Heritage Conservation Committee’s opinion on the restoration of the structure. Committed conservationists decry that the game plan seems to be to allow heritage structures to turn decrepit and then allow their redevelopment with a higher Floor Space Index. They are shocked at the recommendation that it be demolished and have questioned how civil engineering in 2019 cannot retrofit or restore a structure that had been designed and constructed back in 1869.
This grand structure has an astonishingly wealthy history. The 150-year-old structure constructed as Watson’s Hotel was the venue for an assistant of Lumiere Brothers to screen two feature films Arrival of a Train and Leaving the Factory, it was India’s first luxury hotel and unconfirmed legend has it that its European-only policy spurred Jamsetjee Tata to construct the Taj Mahal at Colaba, it hosted the legendary Mark Twain in January 1896, and this was where Mohammed Ali Jinnah played pool. Its Army and Navy Restaurant turned into a mini-legend of its own.
By 1920, Watson’s ceased to be a hotel, by the 60s it had changed ownership and turned into a commercial-cum-residential building with offices of lawyers in the nearby courts.
Its newest owner Sadiq Ali has been pleading that rents are not sufficient to maintain the heritage structure, let alone restore it. What happened to the funds which Mhada collected? What came of its budgets to restore heritage structures? Why allow the Rent Control Act to play havoc with heritage conservation?
Mumbai’s built heritage is important to the city, helps define it. The city’s administrators simply have to find a way to make it viable for owners to care for it and support restoration. Or, some of them will disappear bit by bit, year after year.