The Esplanade mansion, a 150- year-old building recognised by UNESCO as a heritage structure, is today a monument in shambles and a disaster-in-waiting.
The British-era multi-storey, considered to be the first building erected on pillars of cast iron, has got the UNESCO’s recognition as Grade II-A heritage structure, according to officials and conservationists.
Grade II buildings are those which are of special interest and warrant all efforts to preserve them.
The building also has the distinction of having been the residence of industrialist Jamsetji Tata.
Alarm bells of an impending disaster were sent ringing a few days back after the collapse of a balcony of the building which houses residential units of 15 families, offices of about 200 lawyers and some shops.
Although nobody was injured in the incident in which a parked taxi was crushed, parts of a road alongside the building, located in Fort area in south Mumbai, have been barricaded by authorities for the safety of people. Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) had put the building in the “most dangerous” list in 2010 and asked its occupants twice to vacate it.
However, the unit owners and tenants moved court, arguing that the building is “repairable” and MHADA should do it. “The building is extremely rickety and we served them (occupants) notices twice. But the people living in the building as well as its owners did not vacate it and moved the court. Now the matter is sub-judice,” said a MHADA official.
The Bombay High Court, during a recent hearing, observed that it was imperative that authorities took a decision on the repair work soon to avoid any “disaster”.
Advocate Ashok Sarogi, who has five offices in the building, has secured a stay from the high court on MHADA’s eviction notice after telling the court that occupants would continue to stay in the building at “their own risk”. Interestingly, the building is situated very close to the high court.
The five-floor Esplanade building, formerly known as Watson hotel, was built with cast iron fabricated in England.
The building, enrolled in the list of ‘100 World Endangered Monuments’, has reportedly got the distinction of hosting the first film screening on the Indian sub-continent in 1896. The screening was done via the Lumire Brothers’ Cinematographe invention.
Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco ensembles are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites and currently, there are 94 such buildings in the city, including the Esplanade mansion.
Abha Narain Lamba, a noted conservation architect who has been campaigning for the restoration of glory of the city’s historical monuments, said this building should not be considered an ordinary structure. “We must protect the historicity and the glory of this splendid, unique, iconic and majestic building. Very few such buildings are there in the world as of today,” she said.
Sarogi said the building can be repaired. “MHADA owes Rs 3 crore to us that it collected as cess tax over decades but did nothing. We simply want a NOC from the civic body, which is blocking the path of repair,” he said.
Arvind Shah, who runs a small stationery shop in the building for over last 39 years, does not seem to be scared of working from there, although he wants a new redeveloped structure. “I have an association with this building since 1979 and I have found the structure in more or less the same condition. The portion which fell a few days back was not a part of the original building,” he said.
The rickety and unsafe condition of the building has been noticed not only by its tenants but also by people who see it daily. Advocate Naresh Jadhav, who has been practising in the vicinity since last 25 years, said, “I have been seeing this building in the same condition for many years. It seems the building has no one to take care of and has been left to the God’s mercy.”