Time can be a cruel equalizer. So many great civilizations, monuments and men have fallen victim to the trials and tribulations of time. While some have been buried deep within the sands of time, some remain, only as a shell of their former glorious self, standing as a reminder of the power of time. Today I will tell you the story of Watson's Hotel — Bombay’s first five-star hotel, its glory days and how such a heritage building succumbed to the vagaries of time, resulting in its present dilapidated condition.
The Watson Hotel, now known as the Esplanade Mansion, is nestled in the heart of Mumbai's Kala Ghoda with many Mumbaikars unaware of its rich history or even existence. It stands as a silent witness to a bygone era of opulence and grandeur. This historic structure, dating back to 1869, holds the distinction of being India's oldest surviving cast-iron building, a testament to the architectural marvels of the 19th century.
Originally envisioned as a space for office and showroom facilities by its first owner, John Watson, an English businessman in Bombay, the building's construction was a remarkable feat of engineering and design. Fabricated in England and assembled on-site, the Watson's Hotel boasted an external cast-iron frame, reminiscent of the grand buildings of London, along with expansive balconies adorning each of its five floors and a magnificent atrium that exuded elegance and sophistication.
In 1869, the structure was transformed into Watson's Hotel, an exclusive establishment catering only to the white elite, symbolizing the pinnacle of British colonial influence in India. The hotel quickly became a symbol of luxury and refinement, attracting distinguished guests and serving as a hub for social gatherings and cultural events. It was within these hallowed walls that the Lumière Brothers' Cinematographe invention was first showcased in India in 1896, marking a pioneering moment in the country's cinematic history.
Mark Twain, renowned American author, describing the Watson Hotel after his stay at the hotel during his lecture tour in January 1896
However, as time marched on, the once illustrious Watson's Hotel began to witness a gradual decline, eventually ceasing its operations as a hotel in the 1960s. Subsequently, the building underwent a transformation, with its rooms being repurposed as commercial and residential spaces, attracting tenants seeking proximity to the city's High Court and establishing it as a hub for law offices.
Despite its storied past, the building's fate took a somber turn as neglect and negligence set in, casting a shadow over its former glory. The structure's decline was exacerbated by the challenges posed by tenancy laws, making it increasingly difficult for the owners to collect sufficient rent to maintain the building. The once-majestic atrium and ballroom, once the epitome of elegance, now lay in disarray, serving as dumping grounds for its residents. Balconies succumbed to decay, and cobweb-infested stairs bore the scars of time, with missing slabs bearing witness to the building's gradual deterioration.
In 2005, tragedy struck as a portion of the building's façade collapsed, claiming a life, mere days after it had been listed among the 'World's 100 Most Endangered Monuments' by the World Monuments Fund. Despite being flagged as uninhabitable by Mumbai's Buildings Repair and Reconstruction Board, the building continues to house residents, their hopes pinned on an imminent restoration.
While Mumbai's heritage conservation body has given its nod for the historic building's restoration, the lack of funding remains a significant impediment, stalling progress on this front. The Watson's Hotel, once a beacon of elegance and refinement, now stands as a poignant reminder of the perils of neglect and the fragility of heritage in the face of time's relentless march. As the city grapples with the challenge of preserving its architectural legacy, the fate of the Watson's Hotel hangs in the balance, a reluctant ode to a time gone by and a historic significance nearly forgotten.
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