Saturday, June 1, 2019

The State of the Esplanade Mansion- in conversation with Vikas Dilawari

The State of the Esplanade Mansion- 
in conversation with Vikas Dilawari

The building formerly known as the Watson Esplanade Hotel and now as Esplanade Mansions is the one anomaly in the list of heritage building conservation efforts in Mumbai. While building of similar vintage around it have benefitted from professional intervention, the Esplanade Mansion has, for a variety of reasons, and for nearly half a century allowed to go to seed.

This building was anomalous even when it was built, between 1867 and 1869, based on the designs of Rowland Mason Ordish, an engineer associated with the Crystal Palace and St. Pancreas Station in London. It was a pioneering prefabricated, cast iron framed building, well ahead of its time, with most of tis components shipped directly from the Phoenix Foundry in Derby. Seeing the building come up, like a Meccano set, a traveller in 1867 remarked that the building was “something like a huge birdcage had risen like an exhalation from the earth”.

The building, with some modifications, opened as Watson’s Hotel in 1869, and held pole position on the Kala Ghoda open space. It was also the one Hotel of choice for ‘European-Only’ visitors to give custom, and has been known for a variety of interesting occupants over its 150 year old history. Mark Twain stayed here and wrote about the view from his balcony. In 1896, the Lumiere Brothers held their fist screening of the ‘Cinematograph’ on its premises. Jamshedji Tata, in retaliation to being snubbed by the hoteliers, set up the Taj Palace in 1903, within sight of the hotel, both; it is said out of retaliation and spite. 

From the 1960s however, the former Hotel was subdivided and tenanted to a variety of homes and offices. Fifty years down the line, this state of affairs has led to make the Watson’s Hotel one of the most rundown buildings in plain sight in one of the most prominent positions of the city, still admired for its avant garde construction and rued for its current state. Parts of the building have been falling off in recent times.

In July 2018,  a new  precinct was added to the global list of heritage sites at the 42nd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, in Manama, Bahrain. This inscription, called the ‘Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai’ included the Esplanade Mansion as a prominent heritage building within the precinct.

On 23rd May 2019, the Mumbai Mirror published a report of a structural audit carried out by the IIT-Bombay, and submitted to MHADA. The Mirror quoted from the report thus: “The rigidity of the structure is lost. Several alterations have been made in the form of rooms and mezzanine floors, which have increased load on structure. In our view, any kind of structural repairs are neither logical nor economically viable. The repair of the building will be a dangerous job as many structural elements are not rigidly connected to each other. The repairs also cannot make the structure habitable under seismic conditions. Considering the above, it is of the opinion that it will be prudent to demolish the building.” MHADA, in turn, would submit the report to the Bombay High Court.

With the distinct possibility that the Esplanade Mansion, part of Mumbai’s indelible heritage may have it days numbered, I invited the city’s most sensitive conservation architect Vikas Dilawari for a discussion about the state of the Esplanade Mansion. This conversation is focused only on built heritage conservation, and Dilawari has been most forthcoming with his views.

How do you read/ interpret the structural audit made by the IIT-Bombay, and their conclusions that the Esplanade Mansion is irredeemably distressed, and beyond any possibility of being safely conserved?


IIT-Bombay is one the most reputed of institutes and I am sure their report would have gone through all aspects of the Esplanade Mansion in detail. As I have not read the report, I cannot comment on it. Also, not having surveyed the entire building and studied its context, commenting on specific issues would not be fair.  However, I can speak generically with reference to heritage properties like the Esplanade Mansion.

While it is very vital to understand what is in the report, it is equally true that the building is very significant in terms of its structural history and cultural heritage. Firstly, The Esplanade Mansion, or the Watson’s Hotel as it is popularly known, was an engineering feat of its time. That itself merits the extra efforts to try to retain it. Secondly, it is sad that despite being so exceptionally significant its heritage Grade II-A was never changed to Grade I in the proposed listing. I also wonder why extra efforts were not made by all stake holders -- users, owners, the state government and others, letting it become rundown to this state of disrepair in past decades despite having heritage legislation.

‘Safely conserved’ is a tricky phrase. What you actually mean is ‘safely habitable’. This leads us to the larger debate of skilful repairing or retrofitting to meet present codes. If the building is unsafe and you repair it, you have enhanced its life but you haven’t yet made it earthquake resistant, which being a habitable building is what the study would perhaps have addressed. The same logic cannot be applied to uninhabited ASI protected monuments which are not earthquake resistant per se. Also the IIT building survey report would reveal whether the structural system of the whole building has developed overall distress or are there problems locally, and whether it is possible to replace or strengthen those areas.

I think this building is a classic case study of whether conservation can be done. If so, the field of conservation in Mumbai has a very bright future. If it is pulled down, well then…

Given the amount of additions and alterations made over the last century, is it possible to reverse its effects through structural conservation?


Additions and alterations have certainly taken place. The adding of dead load to the building to a very large extent would be the main concern.  The additional load of mezzanines, for example, is undesirable and should be removed. These issues need to be addressed urgently. The original wooden flooring may have, possibly, been replaced with concrete too.

The iron work in the building requires protection, and the building requires overall maintenance, but that has never been done thanks to the Rent Control Act. This Act is what inhabited heritage sites should be relieved from or modified upon. Economic considerations are vital if we want the maintenance of heritage sites to be good. Also, many of these matters are legal and go on perpetually and it is only now that the courts have intervened in the case of the Esplanade Mansion, so there is hope that some definite outcome will emerge.

Structural conservation would mean restoring the building back to its original status, which would mean removing many things which been overlaid on it for a substantial period of time. Whether the removal of these additions is acceptable to the users/owners is a question. These are very complex issues. Hopefully, if this is resolved and the building vacated then there can be some hope for finding viable alternatives.

Structural engineer Alpa Sheth, has, in her response piece in the Mumbai Mirror on May 27th 2019, while quoting the report said: "the cast-iron framing of the building does not lend itself to seismic resistance (which was not required when Watson Hotel was first built) and a completely new lateral load resisting system would need to be inserted into the building." Does this not lend finality to the notion that the building is beyond the capacity to be conserved?

I am not a structural expert so I would not react on that. As my area of interest is conservation, I can only argue that the very fact the Esplanade Mansion is still standing so many years after it was built is a good enough argument  to repair and restore it back, at least to that state. 

Yes, additional unwanted load or intervention, if unauthorized, should be removed. Yes, if it is possible to impart seismic resistance to the structure, without altering its authenticity and significance, then one certainly should try and be happy that the health of the building after repairs is better than what it was. 

The Esplanade Mansion is dilapidated both from the inside and the outside. Several parts have fallen off and there are visible structural cracks. Is it safe, even responsible, to allow a conservation team inside the building to carry out structural conservation?


The very fact that the building is standing and was habitable till yesterday means one can survey most of its parts. There may be areas not reachable or damaged or broken which one cannot survey, but at present most areas look accessible. In addition, there seems to be some propping done in the poor areas. This indicates a survey can be done with care and precaution. What is ideal is that once the building is vacated, it should then be propped and surveyed.

What steps are possible to be taken to give this building a new/extended life? This building is a prefabricated framed structure of cast and wrought iron with infill brick walls. How will its conservation differ from that of a load bearing masonry building?

The repairs would certainly need expertise of a very well experienced structural engineer in cast iron and steel works. The building has be made vacant and a proper structural study, economic study and reuse study needs to be carried out (with professional propping of the structure). The economic and reuse studies would require the participation of the stake holders. This will help in deciding its future. 

The most important issue is in any structural conservation of this kind is the dead load. The first action would be to establish the good functional structural grid and then decide on the light weight floors and removal of the unwanted load of unauthorized additions. 

The advantage of steel and timber structures is that you can locally cut out the distressed areas and replace them with new materials, or strengthen them with flitching. Whether we can get this similar kind of cast iron and wrought iron sections today (which were engineering feats then) is a question. Importing these sections from the original foundry, from the Phoenix in Derby, would be prohibitively expensive. Also, one is not sure if these elements are manufactured nowadays on such scale. 

The Esplanade Mansion is now inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Ensemble. What happens to its status and the status of the ensemble if the building collapses or is demolished?


Recently the Esplanade Mansion was also included in the World Heritage ensemble, but no efforts were made by the authorities to stem its decay. This is just like the case of Gilbert Hill, which is Grade II and not Grade I, so despite being listed, no adequate protections have been taken to prolong its life. We should remember that heritage listing is not the end but only the beginning.

If the building collapses or is demolished, the WHS committee will give a warning to states parties that they may remove the World Heritage Status. This happened in the case of Angkor Wat when the real estate (hotel industry) was threatening the temple or when a bridge was constructed in Hampi few years ago.

The WHS tag will be even more threatened (as the OUV- Outstanding Universal Value for which it is listed) if it gets compromised. If for example, the site is redeveloped, with a high rise structure, with podium car parking. If state laws are not effective for the protection of such WHS sites, then a yellow and red flag will be waved in coming years.  

Also, being included in the “World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments” by the World Monuments Fund is not something to be proud of.

If the building is, despite all other alternatives, demolished, what should come up in its place?


As a true conservationist I would prefer it is never demolished. 

The Esplanade Mansion was an engineering feat of 19th century. If we can, we should preserve this engineering feat through skilful repair or conserve it in a manner by which its authenticity and historicity is respected.

Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect with more than three decades of experience exclusively in the conservation field, ranging from urban to architecture to interiors. He has double Masters in Conservation from School of Planning and Architecture (New Delhi) and from the University of York (UK). He was the Head of Department of Conservation Department at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) Mumbai from its inception in 2007 till Aug 2014. He has served as advisory roles in International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). He has been a Trustee of Indian Heritage Cities Network (IHCN) and a former Co- Convener of INTACH Mumbai Chapter.

His practice has executed conservation projects ranging from prime landmarks to unloved buildings of Mumbai. His nationwide work includes projects ranging from historic homes, palaces, residential buildings, educational buildings (Schools and Colleges), hostels, churches, temples, dharamsalas, museums, banks, office buildings, lecture halls, fountains and hospitals. Several of them have received national and international recognition. A total of sixteen of his projects have won UNESCO ASIA PACIFIC Awards for Cultural Preservation in SE Asia. Dilawari has lectured and written extensively on the subject of conservation nationally and internationally.

We are aware that certain aspects related to the Esplanade Mansion are sub-judice. This conversation is therefore clearly academic in nature, restricting itself only to areas of built heritage conservation. While the opinions are those of the conversants, nothing here should be construed as having any bearing on the legal aspects of the case.

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