Heritage highs

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By Heritage tourism is all set to boom in and around the city as grand old houses are being restored and converted into luxury hotels. By Nandini Guha
  • Published 27.02.10

It’s a 134-year-old building in a narrow lane off Bagbazar (in North Calcutta) that’s steeped in history. Now work is on at full swing at Basubati to convert the crumbling building into a swanky heritage hotel that combines old-world charm with every modern luxury.

“I was mesmerised by the architectural beauty of the mansion and decided that the best way to revive it would be to restore it and convert it into a hotel”, says realty tycoon Harsh Neotia.

Cut to Ho Chi Minh Sarani where businessman Aditya Poddar has bought the late Sir R.N. Mookerji’s palatial home and plans to turn it into a mix of an old-style heritage hotel with a multi-storey modern annexe. Poddar is pulling out all the stops and plans to put in all the latest amenities along with more old-fashioned suites in the old building.

History’s a sure winner for travellers who want to soak up the atmosphere and a feel for the past. And now Bengal and eastern India are getting a string of heritage hotels that will attempt to capitalise on the region’s rich history and turn it into tourist bucks.

Old history-laden buildings are clearly the flavour of the month. Take a walk down Park Street where the Apeejay Group is starting renovations at the gigantic 100-year-old Park Mansion. Currently work is underway to strengthen the foundations of the ageing building but the Apeejay Group aims to build spacious service apartments in the sprawling space (the building is spread over 1,47,000sq ft and a giant courtyard covers another 50,000sq ft).

“At the moment, we are strengthening the structure of the old building. Electrical and sanitary modifications are on cards but there will be minimum intervention with the interiors”, says architect Dulal Mukherjee, who is in charge of the project.

Basubati is a brilliant fusion of classical European architecture with the local art of Bengal

ITC WelcomHeritage is an old hand at the heritage hotel game. It’s now looking at a May opening for a new property, The Camellia in Santiniketan. Oddly enough, the building itself is only 25 years old so it isn’t really a heritage site. But WelcomHeritage says, in this case, it’s the destination that is a heritage one. “The minute you think Bengal, you think of Gurudev (Tagore). The open system of learning, traditional Bengali cuisine, local arts and crafts. We want Camellia to feature all that,” says WelcomHeritage president, Rakesh Mathur. Camellia will have 45 rooms and suites and will be a mid- to upper-range hotel.

“Our primary consideration apart from the antiquity of the houses is that the properties have to have some potential for being a destination. The property also has to be visually beautiful for it to sell,” says Mathur.

ITC WelcomHeritage is also scouting for other properties in Burdwan, the Dooars and the North Eastern states to convert into heritage hotels.

It has already spread its wings in the north east and has just opened the 18-suite and eight-room Denzong Regency in Gangtok about four months ago. “The USP of the hotel is its totally Sikkimese architecture and the look is of a monastery. We are also introducing a Sikkimese menu,” says Thinley Densapa, the owner of the property and a descendant of one of Sikkim’s aristocratic families.

Looking further eastward? Plan a trip to the newly spruced up Pemaling in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh. Located at an altitude of 6,500ft, strategically situated on the route to Tawang, the area has great natural beauty — hot springs, apple and kiwi orchards and also angling opportunities on the Jia Bhoroli River. Pemaling was an old inn, which ITCWelcomgroup renovated in 2008.

Turning old buildings into heritage hotels oozing with history isn’t always a simple task. Especially in Calcutta where old buildings are often in a rather decrepit condition, it can involve heaps of tough renovation.

A stained glass door leading to a balcony in Basubati

Neotia has hired conservation architect Abha Narain Lamba to restore Basubati and also architect Channa Daswatte, to do the interiors. Lamba confesses that she was astounded by the building when she went through it. Says Lamba: “It seems as though time has stopped here. Basubati is a brilliant fusion of classical European architecture with the local art of Bengal — its columns and arches blending beautifully with the thakurdalans, courtyards and frescos so typical of the Bengal Renaissance.”

Neotia is looking at a 2012 opening for Basubati. And he’s convinced the property will attract visitors even though it’s in a relatively unfashionable part of town. He reckons that NRIs and foreign tourists will fall in love with the Victorian charm of the property and leisurely lifestyle that it evokes. For Basubati, Neotia plans 20 premium rooms but in addition, the spacious courtyards will double up as venues for board meetings, birthdays, engagements and anniversary celebrations.

But doing a heritage property can be tricky. So Channa Daswatte, has some special plans up his sleeve to ensure that the interiors are preserved. He wants to arrange the furniture in such a manner that the guests won’t actually need to touch the walls.

Denzong Regency in Gangtok has a typically Sikkimese architecture and offers 18 suites and eight rooms

Daswatte feels that while the property is being restored, there should be minimum intervention with the timber, beams and doors of the original mansion. “The guests will be aware that this is a heritage property as soon as they have checked in”, says the architect, who has worked previously with Neotia.

Poddar also echoes the same thought as he shows off a model plan for Raj-Bari. The heritage section will be preserved as it is and a team of specialist architects is already at work on it. He’s planning stylish suites filled with antique furniture and precious artefacts named after some of the august personalities who were guests at this historic mansion.

“Expect suites in the name of Lady Ranu Mookerji, Jawaharlal Nehru, plus the period furniture and antique paintings which will add to the ambience of each room”, says Poddar, who is investing about Rs 300 crore to build the hotel.

However, Poddar will also be adding a very modern wing which he hopes will be something like the Raffles in Singapore.

“We would like a professionally competent international hotel chain to manage it”, he says. He’s also planning to add facilities like a spa, a swimming pool, a banquet hall and at least three restaurants to the hotel which will have about 160 rooms.

(From top) The Grand Great Eastern Hotel will offer 150 heritage rooms and 14 plush heritage suites; The Camellia is building on Santiniketan’s status as a heritage destination; the Denzong Residency offers a stunning view of Kanchendzonga

At the Grand Great Eastern, the new owner Bharat Hotels is offering 150 heritage rooms in the older block and 90 rooms in a new wing that’s coming up behind the old structure. Bharat Hotels group plans to construct a swimming pool, a bakery, and two fine dining restaurants in the new hotel. About 60 per cent of the work is complete and a 2011 opening is expected, according to inside sources at the hotel.

Cuisine is also set to play an important role in the latest crop of heritage hotels. Neotia wants to offer Anglo-Indian as well as Bengali cuisine for guests who want to relive the Raj experience. “We will also ask the family (the Basus) to help us create the menu”, he said.

Meanwhile, Raj-Bari will offer Chinese, English and Bengali cuisine in its restaurants. Says Poddar: “We will probably have a seven-course Bengali menu at Raj-Bari—something which Sir Rajen and his daughter-in-law Lady Ranu Mookerji probably had as a matter of daily routine.”

At Park Mansion expect at least one fine dining restaurant on the ground floor and a few lounges and restaurants on the huge terrace. However, this project is still at a very early stage and the details of its F&B outlets haven’t really been finalised.

Don’t think for a moment that getting some of these projects is a simple affair. Neotia is still in the process of getting parts of his proposal cleared by the Heritage Committee of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Also, there’s a public library that has been operating for years on the premises of Basubati and which will have to be shifted to another site.

At Park Mansion there are even more serious problems because the building has tenants, some of whom have been there for decades, and it’s proving tough to persuade them to shift out. So, Mukherjee is drawing up limited plans for the building currently.

Like any old building, these structures could be tough to maintain. The families have, in fact, sold because of the high maintenance costs and the high taxes.

“It is the very high rate of KMC taxes that the families are forced to pay which is a trigger. Also, one coat of paint would cost them a crore of rupees and how would that be affordable?” says historian Barun De.

What will it cost to stay at these hotels? Prices vary depending on how smart they are planning to be. Basubati, for instance, will be positioned as a luxury boutique hotel and Raj-Bari will also be at the upper end of the spectrum. But in places like Santiniketan, The Camellia will charge about Rs 3,000 plus taxes for a deluxe room, and Rs 5,000 for a suite.

In its glory days in the late 19th century and early 20th century when the Basus of Basubati were in their heyday, the building had guests like Swami Vivekananda (after he returned from Chicago), Rabindranath Tagore and was a rallying point for many leading freedom-fighters. Neotia is hoping that in the years to come equally distinguished guests will be stepping through its doors once again.

Photographs by Rashbehari Das