Watson’s Hotel, currently known as the Esplanade Mansions, is India‘s oldest surviving cast iron building, located in the Kala Ghoda district of Mumbai (Bombay). It was named after its original owner, John Watson. The building was fabricated in England and constructed onsite between 1867 and 1869. It was designed by civil engineer Rowland Mason Ordish (1824–1886), who was also associated with the St Pancras Station in London. Its 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 distinguished by building-wide open balconies on each floor that connected the guest rooms. The rooms in Watson’s Hotel were built around the atrium in a courtyard arrangement.
John Watson opened the hotel as an exclusive whites-only hotel, and it was the swankiest hotel in the city in those days. The five storied structure housed 130 guest rooms, as well as a lobby, restaurant and a bar at the ground level. The hotel also had a 30 metre by 9 metre atrium which had a glass skylight. The atrium was originally used as a ballroom. The common joke at that time was: “If only Watson had imported the English weather as well”. At its peak, Watson’s hotel employed English waitresses in its restaurant and ballroom.
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‘ Cinematographe invention in 1896. However this was witnessed only by Europeans.
According to rumours, Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata was denied access to the hotel. In retaliation he opened the Taj Mahal Palace, a hotel that stands near what is now the Gateway of India in 1903.
After Watson’s death, the hotel lost its popularity to the Taj Mahal Hotel. In the 1960s the hotel was closed and sold to a private owner. It was subdivided and partitioned into small cubicles with independent access and let out on rent. Over the years apathy toward the building by the residents has resulted in it being in a dilapidated condition. The atrium was subsequently used as a dumping ground and has several illegal constructions. The building currently has 53 families and 97 commercial establishments. Most of the commercial establishments are chambers of lawyers catering to the adjacent Bombay Civil & Session Courts and to the nearby Bombay High Court.
The building’s poor state of affairs has been remarked time and again, and efforts by Heritage activists to persuade its present owner to invest in restoration have been stymied by his refusal to spend from his own pocket, and without tenants’ contributing. The condition of the building was publicized by Italian architect Renzo Piano, as a result of whose efforts, the building was listed June 2005 on the “100 World Endangered Monuments” by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based NGO. Just a few days after its nomination, part of the building’s western facade (not seen in the picture) – originally balconies developed into tiny 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.