A mansion steeped in history will soon become an exclusive boutique hotel

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Two Prime Ministers, a Speaker of Parliament and a President. Triumph and defeat. Happiness and anguish. Laughter and tears. Death and intrigue. The first-ever political murder in Sri Lanka's recent history where a reigning Prime Minister fell to an assassin's bullet, rocking the very foundations of this country.

A record that is difficult, nay near-impossible to match. That's what the now silent but imposing colonnaded halls of this august and beautiful British colonial mansion embrace within their portals. This is none other than Tintagel down Rosmead Place in Colombo 7, the living and breathing home of the Bandaranaikes since the mid-1940s.

Like the lives and destinies of the Bandaranaike family that have been inextricably linked to the destiny of Sri Lanka, this stately home, steeped in history is about to enter a different phase. The papers have been signed on February 1 for a long lease and restoration work has already begun to turn Tintagel into an exclusive boutique hotel not only with the blessing of Sunethra Bandaranaike, the last occupant but also with that of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Parliamentarian Anura Bandaranaike, for it belongs to all three scions of the Bandaranaike family in equal undivided shares, after the death of their mother, former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman premier.

Why such a drastic decision for Tintagel? Why not turn it into a museum?
Sitting below the portrait of a young Sirimavo, in the hall of Tintagel with its original parquet flooring, there is no hesitation on Sunethra's part when replying though later looking up at the stained glass centrepiece roof of her home, her eyes are moist.

"Yes, this house has had drama more than any other in the country. A majority of people in Sri Lanka consider this to be a treasure that should be preserved for posterity," concedes Sunethra, suggesting that people cast their eye not only towards far -away Europe but closer home to India.

"All the huge palaces in Europe, the chateaus in France, the castles and manorial homes in England and even the Maharajahs' palaces in India have been turned into plush, posh elegant hotels," she says, throwing the question, "Why?"

For them to be maintained well and not go to rack and ruin, Sunethra herself answers adding, "This is far too big a place for me to live. The choices are limited."

Touching on her illustrious family, she says that in her view the Bandaranaike family creating any more political leaders seems remote. "For families like ours, wealth came from property. In a sense we can be called the landed gentry because we were not into business. When our family needed money for politics, lands were sold and my father even mortgaged the house he was living in. Then my mother, during her premiership gave away our land under the land reform policies and each of us was left with only 50 acres. Our generation, once again did not take to business and because my sister and brother have been involved heavily in politics, the properties have not been developed. The net result is that the income from the land is negligible but you have to live."

There was a need to protect and preserve this house, considered a monument by many. What were the options? Sunethra looked out for a good tenant and along came Udayashanth Fernando of Paradise Road and Gallery Café with no evidence required of his ability to create tasteful places of elegance. "Shanth is a dear friend and there was never any doubt that he would enhance and improve the house and property while preserving its architecture. We discussed the concept of a boutique hotel, while he explained in detail what he had in mind for Tintagel. After lengthy discussions, where Nangi and Malli (Chandrika and Anura) were kept informed, we thought it was the best option."

Incidentally, Tintagel had been rented out twice before by the Bandaranaikes between 1962-67, first to the Burmese Ambassador and later to the Egyptian Ambassador. "After the attempted coup of 1962, Amma was advised to move to Temple Trees for security reasons," explains Sunethra.

The decision to lease Tintagel was also precipitated by emotions closer to the heart. For Sunethra, who had spent her childhood along with Chandrika and Anura running around the rooms of Tintagel and romping in the manicured gardens with their own little play corner with mat-slide, see-saw and swings, life changed when Amma died on October 10, 2000.

"Paalui." A single word says it all. "This was a lively house, full of people and noise. With Amma's death the situation changed overnight. I felt lonely and isolated. During the day I filled the place with Sunera Foundation staff and people," she says. Sunera is an organisation set up by Sunethra to provide opportunities through dance and drama for differently-abled and underprivileged children and youth to integrate into society.

But at night the memories came of happier times when there was "life" in the house, bringing with them sadness and loneliness. She hopes to move out to a smaller place she has rented on Buller's Lane from a cousin, in the near future. "The house turned into a catacomb. The time had come for me to move out."

Shanth’s vision
A neat pile of rocks lies by the arched side entrance of Tintagel, giving a hint of what is to come, while a 36-candle chandelier hangs in the home of Shanth Fernando awaiting rewiring and a touch of paint before being carefully moved to 65, Rosmead Place, to take its place as part of the classy décor in the boutique hotel.

A boutique hotel for Colombo was at the back of Shanth's mind, but he was searching for the right place. "I believe in tasteful and timeless style and for this I need space with potential," he says surrounded by sculptures and invaluable paintings by George Keyt and others of his ilk at his home on Boyd Place.

Being a close friend of Sunethra, there was never a thought of exploiting his friendship with her. "When I heard that she was thinking about renting out Tintagel we discussed the matter. Tintagel needs to be protected and preserved for posterity. If you look around you see that most historic mansions have deteriorated," says Shanth.

And he takes it as his personal challenge -- to create a unique Sri Lankan boutique hotel for the discerning tourist and visiting foreign dignitary who themselves will know the value of a place of such old world charm and history. Towards this end he has already begun scouring Europe for the necessary accessories.

He envisions eight suites, each with its own sitting room, attached facilities and private balcony. A few walls will have to be opened out in the 12,000-14,000 square ft house on 101 perches but no major alterations will take place and he will make sure that the structure remains intact. There will be a swimming pool and a lap pool, which he explains as a one-lap pool.

Ensuring privacy will be the bottom line and with this in mind, the fine dining area will be restricted only to house-guests and in lean periods, a few advanced reservations. The enclosed garden will be an outdoor eating area.

"Tintagel with its British colonial architecture cannot be turned into a Sinhala walauwa. There will be a clash. It will be like chalk and cheese. It has to be sensitively furnished and decorated," says Shanth who is planning to have British colonial furniture enhanced by paintings of the likes of George Keyt. "Honoured," he says to be called upon to develop a house with such a history in collaboration with architect Philip Weeraratne. The boutique hotel opening is planned for end-2005.

Sensitive restoration while maintaining and preserving the architectural features and distinctive aura of Tintagel, that's his hope to make it "stink of style"."I want to show the world that we Sri Lankans have the ability to recognise international style and taste," he adds.

House with a history
The immortal and heroic tales of legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have held a fascination beyond compare for many generations. Through stories about his birth, life and loves, one can be transported to Cornwall in England and see in the mind's eye the turreted façade of Tintagel, the castle cum fortress where King Arthur is believed to have been born.

And taking its name from this castle, was a beautiful mansion on Rosmead Place with no mean history and a fascination of its own, where events and decisions that changed the course of Sri Lanka's history saw their beginnings. Sri Lanka's Tintagel with stables and all, was built back in 1929 by eminent Sri Lankan physician, gynaecologist and writer Dr. Lucian de Zilwa.

"……..I rode out to see the building operations at Rosmead Place by the contractor working under the supervision of the Parsee architect, Mr. Homi Billimoria……….The central corridor running from north to south had a marble fountain with coloured electric bulbs. The corridor was enlarged to a hexagonal space round the fountain, and the concrete floor above was cut to coincide with this area, and a wooden carved railing was fixed for protection. The roof above the aperture was covered with hundreds of glass tiles.

This contrivance was copied from the Hope de Paris, Seville. Unlike most big buildings in Colombo which were dark in the centre, this house was flooded with light. For the front verandah and the steps I procured marble from North India, like that used by the Moguls in Agra……..The steps from the porch were large solid blocks of white marble. A hundred and twenty one points of electric light were available. The front verandah and the corridor had large pendant globes. The drawing room with its parquet floor of teak blocks was floodlit.

The north-west corner of the house had a tower like those in front, and was accessible by a wooden staircase leading upto an entrance with top covered by a moveable lid…………..The maintenance of such an establishment was expensive….," writes Dr. de Zilwa about Tintagel in his autobiography, 'Scenes of a Lifetime'.

Tintagel's house-warming was combined with Dr. de Zilawa's daughter’s coming of age celebration in 1930. But with World War II, life at Tintagel changed, with Dr. de Zilwa literally getting marching orders, to vacate his home in eight days, from the British Military who reckoned that a hundred soldiers could be housed there. Wistfully he adds, "…….It is curious that on the day I left Tintagel, on May 8, 1942, not only did my horse Reaction die of poisoning, but the peacock was found dead in the morning having been killed by a stray dog and partly eaten."

Ultimately Dr. de Zilwa who was living in "a gypsy manner" in Colombo decided to relocate in Kandy. The de Zilwa family had also fallen on hard times and a heartbreaking decision had to be made."…….Tintagel after its occupation by the military was a wreck. The lawn, flower garden and the tennis court were ploughed by lorries. The teak blocks of the parquet floor were displaced. Many of the beautiful lamp shades were broken. No doubt one could expect financial compensation after the war, but the work of restoration was one I could not undertake.

"I decided to sell Tintagel. Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike bought it for Rs. 160,000, about Rs. 90,000 less than it had cost me. Moreover the purchaser was to receive the compensation for war damage. The broker got his 2 ½%, the mortgage loan was refunded and I got a lakh," writes Dr. de Zilwa. Tintagel was for Sir Solomon's son, Solomon West Ridgeway (SWRD) and his wife Sirimavo who were living on rent at 'Wentworth', Lionel Wendt's house, on Guildford Crescent. The young Bandaranaike couple had two children by that time - Sunethra and Chandrika. The third, Anura, was born at Tintagel.

From then on, life for the Bandaranaike family revolved round the halls, rooms and gardens of Tintagel. How many history-changing political decisions would have been made within its portals? How many eminent, powerful and influential people would have walked its corridors, sat in the verandah and shared a meal with the Bandaranaikes? If only the walls could talk, what anecdotes this house would have to relate.

Tintagel would have wept when the head of the household and also Prime Minister at that time S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike crumpled under the bullets of an assassin in its own verandah in September 1959 and would have rejoiced when Sirimavo beat the world to become the first woman Premier. It would have shivered in terror when the first family was under threat during the attempted coup of 1962 and the insurrection of 1971. This home which held the three Bandaranaike siblings close to its bosom in their growing up years would also have cried tears of anguish when Chandrika, the first woman President of the country was caught in a bomb blast in December 1999. As Tintagel stands on the threshold of a new life.....that is all history.

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