Watson’s Hotel, currently acknowledged as the Esplanade Mansion, is India’s oldest sustaining cast-iron building. It is located in the Kala Ghoda area of Mumbai (Bombay). Named after its original owner, John Watson, the building was fabricated in England and built on-site between 1867 and 1869.
The hotel closed in the 1960s and the building was sold to a private owner. It was later divided and partitioned into smaller cubicles that were let out on rent as homes and offices. Negligence of the building has resulted in corrosion and, despite its listing as a Grade II–A heritage structure, the building is now in a rundown state.
Watson’s hotel was planned by the civil engineer Rowland Mason Ordish, who was also linked with the St Pancras Station in London. The structure was fabricated in England from cast iron components and was congregated and constructed on-site. The external cast-iron frame closely resembles other high-profile 19th century buildings such as London’s Crystal Palace. The main façade of the hotel is characterized by building-wide open balconies on each floor that connected the guest rooms, which were constructed around the atrium in a courtyard arrangement.
John Watson opened the hotel as an exclusive whites-only hotel, and it was the most expensive hotel in the city in those days. The five-storied building housed 130 guest rooms, as well as a lobby, restaurant, and a bar at the ground level. The hotel also had a 30 by 9 meters (98 ft × 30 ft) atrium, basically used as a ballroom, with a glass skylight. At its peak, Watson’s hotel employed English hostesses in its restaurant and ballroom, sparking a common joke at the time: “If only Watson had imported the English weather as well.”
After Watson’s death, the hotel lost its fame to the rival Taj Hotel. In the 1960s the hotel was closed and sold to a private owner. Sometime after this, it was subdivided and partitioned into small cubicles with independent access and let out on rent. Over the years, indifference toward the building by the residents has resulted in the structure decaying, and it is now in a neglected state. The atrium was consequently used as a dumping area and has various unauthorized constructions. In 2005, the building had 53 families and 97 commercial establishments. Most of the business enterprises are chambers of advocates attached to the nearby Bombay Civil & Session Courts and the nearby Bombay High Court.
- Notable guests:
Among the hotel’s notable guests was Mark Twain who wrote about the city’s crows he saw outside his balcony in Following the Equator. It was also the first place in India to screen the Lumière Brothers’ Cinematograph invention in 1896. However, this was witnessed only by Europeans.
A popular myth surrounds the hotel was that the staff at Watson’s Hotel denied Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata access to the hotel. In retaliation, he opened the Taj Hotel, a hotel that stands near the Gateway of India, in 1903. However, author and historian Sharada Dwivedi debunks this legend. She points out a lack of evidence to prove that Tata was a man of vengeance.
- Current state:
The building’s poor state of affairs has been commonly remarked, and efforts by heritage activists to persuade its present owner to invest in restoration have been unsuccessful. One of the possible reasons proffered for apathy is the fact that the rent collected is low as it has been frozen by government legislation. The condition of the building was publicized by Italian architect Renzo Piano, and as a result of his efforts, the building was listed in June 2005 on the list of “100 World Endangered Monuments” by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based NGO. Just a few days after its proposal, part of the building’s western façade, originally galleries evolved into small offices, collapsed, killing one person and crushing several cars and motorcycles parked in the street below. The building is currently listed as a Grade II–A heritage structure.