17th October 1999

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Watching the world go by

One of Colombo's landmarks, the Eighty Club, gets a facelift

By Laila Nasry

The Eighty clubIn all the traffic, pollution, and general hustle and bustle of the city, there are still a few places that can restore one's peace of mind.

The 'Eighty Club', established in 1940, remains one of these elusive retreats. Sitting pretty on tree-lined Torrington Avenue, this charming building is home to one of Colombo's most prestigious clubs. Yet for all its majestic, colonial architecture and sweeping drive-way, the Eighty Club has something essentially cosy and warm about it. Walking in, one immediately feels at home and this has been the ambience cherished by its 450 members, over the years.

Built by our colonial masters at the beginning of this century, it epitomises the architecture of that time.

An open verandah, where one can just sit and watch the world go by; a 17th century English-style woodworked grand staircase, great halls which stood witness to the most colourful of weddings, cocktails and other functions, a bar where controversial and creative ideas were debated, and a kitchen that serves authentic Sri Lankan meals and the best crab curry, remain some of the main features of a building that has stood the test of time.

Sixty years on, like any other old building, this too needs conservation and restoration. The present committee approached architect Suren Wickremasinghe, a member of the Club who willingly accepted the task.

The louvred wood panels which face the lawnMost of the refurbishing done to this architectural landmark will be in the upstair section. The decaying louvred wood panels facing the front lawn which keep out the setting sun and the rains but let in the air, will be replaced with similar wood panelling of old timber which enables body-level ventilation. This is in keeping with the British architecture, which this building is renowned for.

In their book 'The Architecture of an Island', Ronald Lewcock, Babara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake write, "The spacious room upstairs would be converted into a conference room. When there are no conferences, it would be used as a dining room. The other rooms upstairs would be converted into a billiard room (having received a second billiard table) and a boardroom, and the present office would be shifted downstairs. A general plastering job too is needed along with a new lick of paint. The refurbishing is aimed at making the club more comfortable for families visiting it and also to make it popular as a meeting place for business discussions and transactions."

The restoration of the club extends to something deeper and more meaningful, something all the members are familiar with- its spirit. The committee is on a quest to rekindle that old spirit which emphasises promoting goodwill, social understanding and social interaction amongst members of various communities. Yearly, around 200,000 people come to the Club for various functions, weddings, receptions, cocktail parties or other social gathering.

"That's not all. Tennis players, snooker players, bridge players, ballroom dancing groups and theatre groups form part of the diverse gatherings under its roof. Family days and members' nights are also organised with the hope of fostering unity and furthering ties between the different communities.

The Club was formed in the pre-independence era, when winds of change were sweeping over society. People had strong views, were passionate about their beliefs and strove towards a common vision.

It was at this time, that the founders, through hindsight made provisions in the book of rules for women to hold positions in the committee. The Eighty Club boasts of women Presidents and Vice Presidents.

The number of members at the Club has always been and will be kept at 450. It has not been increased for the mere fact that admitting an unmanageable number of people for the purpose of furthering financial consideration, will only lead to the corrosion of its very spirit.

However, its exclusivity is not based on economic wealth but more or less on common interests, says K.C.Nadarajah, the Secretary of the Club whose family was one of the eighty founder families. As a boy he roamed the big halls, and it was here he learnt to play snooker and tennis.

Sixty years on, except for the initial membership fee of Rs. 15 for men and Rs. 5 for women, nothing has been changed in the Club. The facelift given to the building and the rekindling of its spirit, only aim to capture and enhance what the Club was renowned for. So the Eighty Club Mr. Nadarajah and his parents knew, will remain that same old homey place for his children and their children.

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