Conservation experts submit reports in Bombay HC to restore Esplanade Mansion


It is finally good news for the survival of the heritage Esplanade Mansion. An expert panel appointed by the Bombay High Court has in two separate reports recommended its repairs and restoration, not its razing.

The iconic multi storied building, formerly the Watsons Esplanade Hotel, is the oldest surviving cast iron building in India. It was constructed between 1867-69. At present, it stands desolate, its tenants all having vacated after it was declared "dangerous" by the state housing board.

The expert panel appointed to study the feasibility of restoration submitted the reports before a bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and B P Colabawalla on January 27. The court is hearing a bunch of matters including one filed by Sadik Ali the owner for its restoration.

Renowned restoration structural Engineer Chetan Raikar, credited with restoration of CSMT submitted one report while heritage conservation Architects Pankaj Joshi and Abha Lamba jointly submitted the other, who recommended that the restored building could be re-used as "public space" and be an "asset to the city".

Both reports factored in the heritage and the history of the buiding.

Raikar concluded that the "Esplanade Mansion needs urgent repairs and strengthening of structural members to ensure stability". He added, "Majority members need repairs and few need restoration". He said, "Esplanade Mansion is an iconic structure with significant local history. It is a marvel of engineering creation".

The joint report by Joshi and Lambah concurred that the structure needs and is possible to be conserved. They said, "We as conservation professionals strongly believe that it is both necessary and possible to restore this historic building, given its immense architectural and historic importance and its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List." They said, "Its structural grid of cast iron columns is largely robust" and recommended a well planned conservation scheme for restoration.

A report submitted by IIT Mumbai in 2019 had recommended demolition of the building. Noted structural Engineer Shirish Patel had been critical of the IIT report and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), had also filed petition to support owner's stand that the building be repaired, but through state machinery.

Advocate Cherag Balsara who appears for the building owner questioned the of locus standi (the right to be heard in the matter) of INTACH—which also is supporting the restoration but through state machinery. HC said it would consider the submission later and gave a week's time to the parties including the owner and Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) to respond to the reports after studying them. Counsel for INTACH Karl Tamboly handed over the joint report as Joshi and Lambah were not in court while Raikar was present in court and handed over his report himself to the court.

"We find there is sufficient potential to repair, restore and protect this culturally significant building," said the joint report but called for a "detailed structural assessment before undertaking repairs." All three had done extensive site inspections and analysis.

Raikar carried out several tests too including the 'non-destructive and laboratory testing' and tests for 'microstructure and hardness' test before declaring the structure fit for restoration. He said, "external balconies would need total reconstruction since they are in advanced stages of structural damage or have collapsed". And he said "some cast iron brackets and "secondary beams" need strengthened and he was confident that the new and improved building would then have "a future service life of 50 years with regular maintenance".

Both reports spoke of "structural distress" of some portions but found them to be "stable" and repairable. The joint report said found "ad-hoc loading on the structure" and said once removed, it will indicate "original features of the building" and give a "more accurate picture of condition".

Their report disagrees with an earlier report by experts that called for demolition. "Though the earlier structural audit report deems building be demolished, and considers it illogical for repair, our inspection suggestions that there is an overarching opportunity to conserve, repair and restore the building".

"Its restoration and economic viability would be largely superseded by its relevance to Mumbai, and India in terms of architectural merit, unique construction value, historical, social and biographical values" said the joint report before adding that "architectural and structural viability and not just economic viablity" were "key considerations" in deciding the fate of the building.

The repair board of Maharashtra and Area Development Authority (MHADA) had sought eviction of all tenants as the building is "dilapidated and dangerous" and all were evicted.

The building had been marked as "most dangerous" for the fourth consecutive years by the Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board (MBRRB) during its pre-monsoon survey in 2018.

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