Construction of the building began in 1867 and it was completed and fitted by the autumn of 1870. It was a marvel of its times and the structural frame of the building was made entirely of pre-fabricated cast iron columns and beams. This is also why the structure has survived for 150 years.
According to Mumbai-based Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), the original design and layout of the building had a provision for 130 rooms. The grand, central atrium was surrounded by dining rooms, shops and a colonnade of cast iron columns on the ground floor, with the site of the present day Army and Navy building serving as a garden to the south of the hotel, which could be visited from the atrium.
A scene of grandeur greeted all those who entered the doors of this lavish hotel built to capitalise on the growth of Bombay as Urbs Prima in Indis, or, the First City of India.
With its double-height ceilings, grand atrium, Minton-tiled floors, exclusive restaurants and opulent rooms, it was the ultimate symbol of luxury in 19th century Bombay. It was a five star hotel that preceded the idea itself!
In the 1960s, a new owner subdivided the building into residences and commercial premises. In the newly independent India, lawyers saw its proximity to the high court as a significant benefit, due to which many of them set up their chambers here. Estimates are that the building houses 15 residences and 200 commercial establishments today. This changed the pattern of use significantly from its original design and also led to it falling under the Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act 1947, also known as the Bombay Rent Control Act.1
- 1. Legislated as a temporary measure in the post-World War II era, to rein in inflation and mindless profiteering, the Act has persisted over the decades. It allows the owners of many historic properties to change only minimal rent, far less than the rate of inflation and market rates, and cannot get their premises evacuated either.
This has led to a situation where tenants can, for all practical purposes, stay on indefinitely while the owners earn negligible income from their properties. As a result, they have no incentive to maintain and invest in these buildings, many of which have thus fallen into disrepair. Even the Supreme Court of India has, in December 1997, called the practice of fixing a ‘standard rate’ as being ‘no longer reasonable’ but the act and its untenable provisions continue.