Friday, February 8, 2013

A Bombay Jewel: Watson's Hotel

Mumbai, February 8, 2013

Perhaps there is no more iconic image of Bombay than the view of the Gateway to India with the Taj Mahal Hotel next to it.  Since it opened in 1903, the Taj Mahal has been the most exclusive hotel in the city.  But before "The Taj" there was Watson's Hotel.

If you saw it today--known as the Esplanade Mansion, half randomly partitioned, half boarded up, completely dilapidated, its legendary atrium piled up with trash--you wouldn't guess that Watson's Hotel was once the toast of Bombay.  But it was, and still is, a remarkable building, a massive five-story cast-iron structure fabricated in English foundries and erected on-site between 1860 and 1863. It is a rather massive and compact volume, but surprisingly airy, with wraparound narrow balconies and a tall gallery of naked cast-iron beams and columns at street level.

Both the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi (now competing with the Taj for the top luxury spot in Mumbai) are waterfront structures, one near the iconic Gateway of India on the east and the other on Nariman Point on the west.  But Watson's Hotel was a truly urban building anchoring its block and establishing connections in the city.  Its arcaded long side links the Kala Ghoda area, the heart of colonial Bombay, with the Esplanade (now Oval Maidan.)  One of its short sides, also arcaded, faces Mahatma Gandhi Road, the main north-south thoroughfare of the district.

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