Explained: What is Mumbai’s legendary Esplanade Mansion, and why are its occupants in SC?

Sadaf Modak
The Esplanade Mansion building was once Watson’s Hotel. (Express Photo)

The Supreme Court on Thursday extended the date to vacate the nearly 150-year old Esplanade Mansion by May 30. The top court was hearing a plea filed by tenants, occupants, and landlord of the mansion to extend the date of vacating. The Bombay High Court’s last month order said it had to be vacated by May 15.

The Esplanade Mansion building was once Watson’s Hotel, named after owner John Watson. Among the unverified legends about the erstwhile hotel, and one that is popular among its tenants is the one about how the restaurant did not allow entry to Indians, including Jamsetji Tata, leading him to build the Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder in 1903.

From being a cultural landmark in Bombay in 1860s, the building, recognised by UNESCO as a Grade II-A heritage structure, has been in the middle of litigation since the last decade in a bid to carry out repairs to it urgently and to restore it to its past glory from its current decrepit condition.

The current landlord of the building is a man named Sadiq Ali Mohammed Ali Noorani. Some of the original tenants claim that the Maharashtra Housing and Areas Development Authority had in 2009 sent the first notice to them to vacate the building, calling it "unfit for human habitation", claiming it was in a dangerous condition.

Esplanade Welfare Association joint secretary B M Gill claims that the notice was withdrawn within a month after a structural audit showed that the building was not in a dangerous condition as claimed, but in urgent need of repairs.

Since then, multiple audits and litigation have followed, to determine whether MHADA will repair the building, and who would bear the cost.

Another challenge is to ensure that the repair is carried out as per norms governing heritage buildings. The Esplanade Mansion is one of the oldest surviving cast-iron structures in the world. In the past, objections were raised by the city’s heritage committee to a contractor appointed by MHADA, citing lack of expertise.

In the latest development, the Bombay High Court on April 3, directed all occupants of the building to vacate the premises by May 15 and has also directed MHADA to submit a plan in the next hearing in June. The tenants have approached the SC seeking interim relief, stating that instead of being asked to vacate the entire premises, MHADA can first submit a phase-wise plan, requiring tenants to vacate as required.

The current tenants and occupants include lawyers, an Irani cafe called Army Restaurant and photocopy shops, given its proximity to the sessions court and High Court.