Long a decaying, crumbling mass of iron and brick, the edifice now known as 'Esplanade Mansions', crammed with scores of businesses and tenants, barely evokes the grandeur it enjoyed in its former incarnation as Bombay's premier nineteenth-century hotel (Fig. 1). Yet, remarkably, after 132 years of use and abuse, this designedly permanent prefabricated wonder still stands wholly on the frame action of its rigid column-beam connections, ample testimony to the Phoenix Foundry Company's fabrication and assembly skills and Rowland Mason Ordish's adroit structural design. It is clear beyond doubt that Ordish (1824-86), one of the nineteenth century's most gifted, yet unsung, structural engineers was personally responsible for the design of this extraordinary fully- framed building, the blatant iron skeleton of which caused so much consternation among contemporaries.

Despite being overshadowed both architecturally and historically by Mumbai 's more exuberant and better-documented Victorian showpieces, Watson's Esplanade Hotel has not passed unnoticed by architectural historians. Perhaps the first to draw attention to its constructional interest, albeit in a local context, was Christopher London, who in 1986 wrote 'the construction of the building, a totally pre-fabricated cast-iron skeletal structure, with brick non-load bearing insertions, was a novelty for Bombay'. London was almost certainly the first modern commentator to ascribe (correctly) the structural design to Rowland Mason Ordish, (and not to John Watson as is frequently stated), noting the engineer's links to the Crystal Palace, Owen Jones and Andrew Handy side, and mentioning some of the engineer's major works.1 - an assertion subsequently reiterated by Philip Davies,2 Gillian Tindall,3 and others. Norma Evenson saw Watson's as 'one of the most innovative buildings of the 1860s in Bombay ... Framed in metal, with a plain surface of brick infilling, it eschewed traditional style for a direct expression of structure'.4 More recently, the Rizvi College of Architecture, Mumbai, who recorded the building as part of an inter-college competition, stated that it 'was the first building in Mumbai to be built entirely with prefabricated cast iron members assembled on site.'5 However, an altogether weightier structural significance on an international level has not been recognised or addressed.

  • 1. Christopher Walter London, 'British Architecture in Victorian Bombay', (Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 1986), pp. 109-114. The belief that the patron, John Watson was the designer - still pervasive in Mumbai today - possibly stems from Sir D.E. Wacha's observation that Watson 'was not only the proprietor but also the architect, engineer and builder of the hotel.' Sir D. E. Wacha, Shells from the Sands Of Bombay: being my recollections and reminiscences 1860-1875 (1920), p. 298. - Martin Meade et al noted that 'Watson's... was also innovatory in its construction, being the first iron-framed building in Bombay'M. Meade, J. Fitchett, and A. Lawrence, Grand Oriental Hotels (1987), p. 21.
  • 2. P. Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India (1989), p. 444: 'It was the first ironframed building in Bombay and caused a sensation when it was built on the former Esplanade'.
  • 3. Tindall, City of Gold: The biography of Bombay (2nd ed., 1 99 1 ), p. 13: 'it was the first ironframed building constructed in Bombay.
  • 4. N. Evenson, The Indian Metropolis: A View Toward the West (Yale, 1989), pp. 164-5.
  • 5. Poster produced by the Rizvi College of Architecture, Bandra, Mumbai (1997).