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15th November 1998

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20th Century Legacy

Of grand old style

Author Royston Ellis and photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe visit buildings that were the pride of Colombo at the begining of the 20th Century

"This is where I am staying. It is rather hot and damp here." Thus wrote a visitor on a postcard sent to England in 1912. The picture on the postcard is captioned: Grand Oriental Hotel, Palm Garden and Restaurant. It shows an interior verandah and a rather untidy garden, both of which no longer exist.

The Grand Oriental Hotel - today......The Grand Oriental Hotel itself ceased to exist in 1963 when it shed the name it had proudly been called since its opening in 1879, and became the Hotel Taprobane. In 1990 the Bank of Ceylon, the owners of the building, faced with the option of closing down the rundown Taprobane or renovating it, took the bold step of giving the hotel a complete facelift.

As a result of that decision, the Grand Oriental Hotel, familiarly known by its initials G.O.H., was reborn. One of the guests at the re-opening in June 1991 was the US Consul in Sri Lanka, Richard Morey Sherman. By an astonishing coincidence, the US Consul in Ceylon at the opening ceremony in 1879 was Sherman's great grandfather, William Morey.

History, and a plaque in the hotel's lobby, records that the original building was constructed in the reign of King William IV as a barracks for the British forces. Building commenced in February 1837 and was completed in October of the same year. The cost was 139 pounds less than the estimate of 2,007 pounds.

Its location opposite the harbour made it an obvious choice for a hotel as passenger ships began to dock at Colombo instead of Galle. It began as a low building with open verandahs to the streets. By the beginning of this century, the G.O.H. was four floors tall and renowned throughout the Empire. Its dining room was recognized "as one of the largest, best appointed and coolest in the East."

The praise was for its fittings. The enormous ground floor room, with tables for 300 guests, had a high ceiling hung with twin-bladed fans poised just above each table. All the public rooms, including one large enough for four billiard tables, and even the bedrooms, were kept cool by electric fans. The novelty of electricity was emphasized at night when the palm garden and grounds were especially illuminated.

A writer in 1907 described the G.O.H. as "the first of the modern type imposing hotels erected in the East." He added: "With its towering front facing the harbour and the shipping and its main portico separated by only a few yards from the principal landing stage, it occupies both a commanding and convenient position."

The hotel had 154 bedrooms then and occupied the whole block along York Street from the harbour-side entrance to what was then Prince's Street, now Sir Baron Jayatilaka Mawatha. Look carefully at the wall of the building in Prince's Street and you can still see the G.O.H. logo on one of the upper pillars.

As a popular hotel the building featured in many different postcards over the years. From these it is possible to trace an important structural change in the building since the postcard quoted above was sent in 1912. The superb portico that faced the landing stage and served as the hotel's main entrance disappeared. A new entrance was built into the York Street corner. Doric columns shore up exterior walls, domes have sprouted on the roof. The wooden balconies that looked out over York Street have been enclosed, becoming part of the interior.

The changes enabled a restaurant, the Harbour Room, to be opened on the fourth floor. Previously there were only some small private dining rooms overlooking the harbour. The renovations in 1990 restored the copper ceiling of the room to its former glory and it now roofs the cocktail bar. The famous banquet hall has dwindled to office accommodation.

A guest, Clare Rettie, writing 70 years ago about the hotel, observed "Inside the G.O.H. a cosmopolitan crowd of passengers from different steamers, are usually moving about, coming and going restlessly. Some are obviously excited, others a trifle dazed by their unaccustomed surroundings. A few are unsuitably clad, garments made of thick tweed, for instance, look sadly out of place."

They must have appreciated the hotel's tropical garden, described as "an exceedingly pleasing feature of the establishment, where guests may rest in charming surroundings while listening to the hotel band." By the 1950s, according to an advertisement for the hotel, dinner-dances were held only on Wednesdays and Sundays, with Felice's Blue Star Band. The hotel advertised "well furnished suites overlooking sea and garden."

Even into the 1980s, the hotel's suites were extraordinarily spacious, with long ledges for steamer trunks and wooden board floors. Decor changed with the renovation in 1990 from antique browns to soft pastel shades, and tiled bathrooms. Individual air-conditioning was added. The lobby, which had sunk into gloom as the Taprobane, was revitalized with a gleaming marble floor and a plush lounge.

Evidence of the grand style of the original G.O.H. remains. At the top of the staircase from the lobby, stained glass windows sport the hotel's initials in an art deco design. But with visitors no longer arriving by sea and competition from new hotels, there are only a few dozen bedrooms now. The stylish heyday of the G.O.H. with its cosmopolitan crowds and tea in the palm garden has become part of Colombo's past.

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