Civil Lines was the hub of European-style hotels in the city until New Delhi came into being in 1911. Established in 1903, the most famous among them was the Maidens Hotel — a stately hotel known for its magnificent colonial architecture and sweeping greens.
Then there were the Swiss Hotel and Hotel Cecil. The latter was owned by the famous Hotz family which owned Wildflower Hall and Cecil Hotel in Shimla.
But Maidens was where the rich, the famous and the royalty stayed till 1930s. The hotel also hosted Edwin Lutyens, the chief architect of New Delhi, during his early visits to Delhi after he was commissioned to design the new imperial Capital. And not many might know that the Maidens was a red-coloured building in its early days.
Though not as grand as Maidens, the Cecil, managed by Robert Hotz, was an exclusive hotel with hundred rooms and a swimming pool. Today, St Xavier’s School stands where it once used to be.
“Cecil was known for its homely environment. It had large apartment-like suites, which made it a favourite of many European families that visited India those days. Many foreign journalists had permanent suits in Cecil as well as in Swiss Hotel. But Indian businessmen and families who visited Delhi often stayed in hotels situated in the walled city,” said DN Chaudhuri, 78, author of ‘Delhi: Lights, Shades, Shadows’.
All the three hotels in Civil Lines were quite popular among elite British women who would often come here for idle gossip in afternoons and would return in the evening with their husbands for dinner and dance.
By 1936, New Delhi got its first major hotel — The Imperial, by far the most luxurious one in the city. It was Viceroy Lord Willingdon who suggested to Ranjit Singh—one of the major contractors of New Delhi—that he should build a hotel, something that had been a part of Lutyens’ original plan.
Designed by R Blomfield, one of Lutyens’ associates, The Imperial, spanning eight acres on Queensway (now called Janpath) had a unique blend of Victorian, old colonial as well as art deco style. It was inaugurated by Lord Willingdon in 1936 at a grand ball in the presence of 15,000 guests. The hotel got its name from Lady Willingdon, who took personal interest in deciding on the interiors of the hotel.
“She personally decided things like carpets, cutlery, chandeliers, which were imported from Europe,” said Vijay Wanchoo, senior vice president and general manager of the hotel. In fact, it was Lady Willingdon who conferred the lion insignia upon the hotel.
“It was the city’s first hotel built in the style of downtown hotels in America. It was the tallest building in New Delhi those days and quite different from the Maidens, which looked more like a housing complex from outside. Till the 1940s, the Imperial used to have offices on the ground floor to make up for the lack of occupancy. Not many people travelled to New Delhi then as there were no businesses or industries here,” said General Narindar Singh, 85, who has been visiting the hotel since 1940s.
No expenses were spared to make The Imperial New Delhi’s most luxurious hotel. Pink marble was imported from Italy; silver crockery and cutlery came from London, chandeliers from Europe, chefs from France and Italy.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the hotel’s pillared verandas, plush dining rooms, tea lounges, royal ballrooms and large green lawns saw many elite, exclusive social gatherings. “The room rate was about R29. The hotel was known for its western food. There used to be weekly dances in the Ball Room. It was the place where anglicised elite like civil servants, army men and Indian princes socialised,” said Singh. One could listen to the strains of Blue Danube during lunch, or an orchestra from London would invite everyone to the floor to end their evening after the candlelit dinner.
In fact, Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten also held meetings at The Imperial to discuss the Partition.
Apart from The Imperial, Hotel Marina in Connaught Place was another addition to the hospitality industry of New Delhi. The hotel was built by the Japanwala family (called so because of their business relations with Japan) in 1934 and thereafter managed by an Italian family till the early 1940s.
The hotel first opened with 46 rooms which could accommodate 52 guests. During World War II, the Italian family went back and the management of the hotel was taken over by the families of businessmen Sardari Lal and Girdhari Lal from Delhi. “The hotel had 26 garages for guests’ cars and 52 servant quarters for their servants. It had a restaurant and a large ballroom,” says Shashank Bhagat, managing partner of the hotel.
In 1934, Hotel India also opened in Connaught Circus with 12 rooms, a restaurant and a bar. Started by LC Nirula and M Nirula, it later expanded into the famous Nirula’s chain of restaurants across the country.
In 1945, Hotel Ambassador was built. Designed by British architect Walter Sykes George, who worked with both New Delhi’s chief architects Lutyens and Herbert Baker, the hotel was a favourite among travellers from across the world. It had a night club called Jewel Box where “men had to wear tuxedos and women had to be dressed in tailcoats to enter the night club. We had racks to keep the hats and umbrellas of our customers,” said Rajendra Kumar, the hotel’s director.