British-Armenian era checks out

Fairlawn hotel sold to Oberois

By Sambit Saha in Calcutta
  • Published 20.02.18
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Jennifer Ann Fowler with her son David at Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

Calcutta: Fairlawn Hotel, the 235-year-old colonial structure where the late actor Shashi Kapoor spent his honeymoon with Jennifer Kendal in July 1958, has been sold.

Elgin Hotel & Resorts, which is owned by the Oberois, has bought the hotel, and it marks the exit of the last British-Armenian hotel owner in Calcutta.

Jennifer Ann Fowler, the 70-year-old, third-generation owner of the property that was originally built in 1783 by William Ford, will leave India for good with her son David and daughter Catherine on Tuesday. She wrapped up all the legal formalities and completed the handover at the weekend.

The family was forced to contemplate a sale after Violet Smith, Jennifer's mother who stayed in the city and managed the property till 2014, died at the age of 94.

"I am settled in the UK and it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the property from there even though I used to come three times a year. This is an old building that needs mending and for that you must have time, energy and finance," Fowler said with her son David by her side.

The hotel has played host to writers like Günter Grass, Dominique Lapierre and Tom Stoppard, actors ranging from Julie Christie to Patrick Swayze, movie producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, and Sting, the musician.

Fowler wistfully recalled the time when the area around the hotel used to be filled by Armenian and Jewish families who started to leave the city over the years. Several hotels such as Kenilworth, which was also owned by overseas owners, had changed hands when the owners found it hard to cope with the stress and strain of a declining work culture and the rise in red tape.

The 18-room property on Sudder Street had changed hands many times over the past two centuries but it always remained out of bounds for an Indian owner.

Brij Raj 'Diamond' Oberoi, managing director of Elgin Hotels & Resorts, said his job would be to maintain the heritage of the property in all respects.

"This is what we have done to our properties in north Bengal and Sikkim. The idea is to improve the infrastructure to a star level without compromising on its heritage tag," said Oberoi, who plans to rename it as Fairlawn Elgin.

Neither Oberoi, who is the cousin of P.R.S. Oberoi of the eponymous Oberoi Hotels fame, nor Fowler was ready to share the financial details of the transaction.

Oberoi said that it would take at least two years to refurbish the two-storey property that stands on a nearly one-acre plot.

Fowler's grandparents Menas and Rosie Sarkies - an Armenian family that fled their country in 1917 after a Turkish invasion - settled in Calcutta where they traded in jute before taking over Fairlawn, which used to be run as a boarding house.

The Sarkies turned it into a hotel that passed on to Violet Smith who married Ted, a Briton. However, during World War II, it was relinquished for the Canadian Air Force for two years and became known as Canada House.

The big guns of Hollywood may have stayed at the hotel but it's the romance of Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal from which it draws its charm and joie de vivre.

Kapoor always stayed at the same suite, room No. 17, whenever he came to Calcutta. The love affair had blossomed when Kapoor joined the Kendal family's Shakespearana drama troupe in the fifties. The Kendal family had always stayed at Fairlawn.

Asked what he planned to do with the room, Viraj Oberoi, Brij Raj's son, said: "We will retain it as the Shashi Kapoor Suite."

Jennifer Ann Fowler nodded. "Hopefully I will come back when the refurbishment is done to see its new avatar," she added.