Can Esplanade Mansion be saved?

On Wednesday, the Mumbai Repair and Reconstruction Board (MRRB) asked the state chief minister to give them special authority to forcefully evict residents of 13 dangerous buildings in the city. One of the buildings is Esplanade Mansion, the former Watson Hotel, one of Mumbai’s architecturally unique buildings.

The efforts to restore the building, which is now protected as an architectural landmark, has been a long and protracted one, and over the years, newspapers in the city have regularly reported the latest stumbling block in the plans to repair the building.   

Apart from its historical importance - in 1896, the building was the venue of the first Indian screening of the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph invention - it is one of the few examples of structures built with a cast iron skeleton. Those who are interested in urban architectural heritage feel that Esplanade Mansion needs to be saved. “Something needs to be done to save the building. I do not know any cast iron building of this size in the city. There are many cast iron warehouses, but not a five-storied structure in such a prominent location,” says architect Chetan Raikar who was recently involved in the restoration of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus building.

Esplanade Mansion’s dire fate seems to be sealed by its long list of problems. The building is rent-protected which means that its tenants pay a rent that is insufficient to maintain the building. Instead, as in the case of such buildings, they pay a cess to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Board (MHADA) which goes into a fund for emergency repairs.  In case of Esplanade Mansion, this arrangement has not worked because the landlord of the building has stopped collecting rent from the tenants after a dispute. Also, the cess collected so far is insufficient to restore a heritage-listed building which needs special construction materials that may no longer be easily available.

Prasad Lad, chairman of MRRB which is part of MHADA says that they need Rs 17 crores to repair Esplanade Mansion while they have only Rs 1.23 crores in the cess kitty. “The building has more than hundred tenants. If each of them contributes Rs 10 Lakh, they can collect Rs 15 crores for repairs. The local Member of Parliament Milind Deora is ready to contribute Rs 1.25 crores from his MP fund and the Member of Legislative Assembly Annie Shekhar has also agreed to help. We can give the balance,” said Lad.

Lad’s proposal has found little support with Esplanade Mansion’s landlord and tenants who feel that the building can be restored with less money. Lad is angry about the residents’ lack of interest in the building’s future. “There are 135 commercial offices in the building. How can they expect somebody else to repair the building?” asks Lad.

According to architects specialising in conservation of heritage buildings, Esplanade Mansion’s problems - at least those relating to its engineering - are not so daunting. They say that cast iron structures are relatively easy to repair. “Cast iron is a corrosion-resistant material. It corrodes only in areas where there is faulty drainage and accumulation of debris. I have seen the building; some sections are really in a bad state. If we concentrate on the areas with a drainage problem, further damage to the structure can be arrested,” says Raikar.

Another solution is for MHADA to create a special fund for the restoration of buildings under its case. V Ranganathan, former state chief secretary who is now a member of the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee suggested this as a solution. “We (committee) can check with MHADA. Probably they will have to create a special provision for such buildings,” says Ranganathan.


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