Restoration plan for Mumbai’s iconic Esplanade Mansion

Published : August 22, 2019 13:11 IST

The 155-year-old Esplanade Mansion in Mumbai, one of India’s first cast iron frame buildings. Photo: Paul Noronha

A year ago a balcony of the iconic Esplanade mansion in Mumbai broke loose and plummeted four floors to land on a parked taxi. Luckily it was a Sunday afternoon in what is a normally a busy business district. Even more fortunately, the driver had gone for a cup of tea. For the building, however, that was the beginning of a series of controversies relating to its future, with issues of safety tending to override those of heritage conservation.

Esplanade mansion is one of India’s first cast iron frame buildings. It has a world heritage listing because it is among the oldest surviving such structures still in use. The 155-year-old cast iron building started life as Watson’s Hotel, erstwhile Bombay’s first luxury hotel. It was also where the first moving pictures were screened in India. On July 7, 1896, paying the huge ticket price of Re.1, an audience watched six short films made by the Lumiere brothers.

This illustrious background is what gave this Grade II-A heritage building its second chance at life. Initially there was a fear among conservationists and the city’s culture lovers that the government would carry through the recommendations of an IIT Bombay report that recommended razing it to the ground.

But then a public interest petition was filed by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) which suggested restoration. A division bench of Justices S.C. Dharmadhikari and Gautam Patel directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) and the State government to make submissions on the restoration of the building.

Thus the structure, which had been on the brink of being demolished, suddenly got new hope. The State government has stepped in and asked the MHADA to repeat the structural audit but this time by a structural engineer who has had experience in heritage buildings. Prior to this the MHADA had said it lacked the funds to repair and restore Esplanade mansion. The agency had estimated that Rs.30 crore would be required to bring it back to its original condition. The MHADA had also contended that it would be incorrect to use taxpayers’ money to repair a privately owned building. But within a month it was forced to carry out a fresh audit. Given the building’s gradual deterioration over the decades, the MHADA had carried out repairs in 1977 and 1986. In 2011, more extensive plans had been made and even approved by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, which had also approved the materials to be used in the restoration.

The State has taken an admirable stance on restoration. The building is part of the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco precinct, which includes such grand structures as the Bombay High Court and the University of Mumbai. The area has earned a World Heritage tag from UNESCO for this. It is understood that UNESCO has said the World Heritage status will be removed if a serious attempt to repair and restore Esplanade mansion is not made. India is a signatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Not saving a unique building like Esplanade mansion would be tantamount to violating the agreement.

There are many advantages to a World Heritage tag being inscribed. An international presence on the tourism map, funds and access to path- breaking conservation know how are just some of the benefits that would be lost if the status is withdrawn.

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