Besides being well-known global citizens, what is common between George Bernard Shaw, Irving Stone, Barbara Cartland, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Jacqueline Onassis? They have all stayed in The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai, built in 1903. The hotel was also engaged in philanthropic activities. During World War I, for instance, the hotel was turned into a 600-bed hospital.
The Taj is not the only 100-year-old hotel in the country that has made its name in history. In Agatha Christie's first book, the Savoy Hotel in Mussoorie was given a rare mention.
We take a look at some of the hotels that have completed 100 years, all replete with stories and resounding with history.
"The Taj has seen the freedom struggle, world wars and the birth of Gateway of India. More than a hotel, it's an important landmark in history," says Farhat Jamal, VP, the Taj Mumbai Hotels and also Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai that has a 28-year association with the hotel.
The hotel, according to Jamal, reflects the amalgamation of Florentine Renaissance and Moorish Stone and its imperial facade and huge corridors are a reminder of its regal past.
"With minimal changes, it is a harmonious balance of a heritage property and a modern building. Its soul has been retained," says Jamal. Three years ago the hotel completed 100 years and to mark it, the film The Taj of Apollo Bunder, was directed by noted filmmaker Zafar Hai. This was followed by an exclusive, silver service, sit-down dinner for guests.
Built at a cost of Rs 25 million with 30 private suites-cum apartments, 350 double and single rooms and four electric passenger lifts, the hotel personified true luxury at the turn of the 20th century.
At that time the hotel had its own power plant with electricity, a CO2 gas ice-machine plant that provided refrigeration and helped cool the suites, power laundry, chemist shop, resident doctor and even a Turkish bath. "It showed what vision Jamshetji N Tata had," says Jamal.
In 1973 a tower wing was added, and today the two wings stand as one in harmony. The group markets this hotel differently from other Taj properties. Its tariff falls in the same category as palace hotels like the Rambagh Palace, Jaipur and the Lake Palace, Udaipur.
GRANDE DAME OF CALCUTTA
The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata is in the league of 100-year-old hotels. According to Ketaki Naraian, spokesperson, the Oberoi Group, "The hotel has been renovated keeping the external colonial structure intact while equipping it with modern facilities."
While the furnished guest rooms include a wide array of innovative amenities like state-of-the-art in-room entertainment and wireless Internet connectivity, it also houses antique furniture and artefacts in addition to valuable paintings by Desmond Doig.
A modern spa, state-of-the-art gymnasium, two restaurants and a bar, and a business centre complement the facilities. The restoration was done by architect and interior designer firm, Zeiler & Lim Design of Germany. With Rs 75 crore (Rs 750 million) already spent over the last five years on renovation, further refurbishment is underway.
Unlike the Taj, the Grand is yet to complete its centenary. This is because its chairman, Rai Bahadur M S Oberoi, officially re-opened the hotel in 1938, though it had been a boarding house for several decades before.
Located in Chowringhee, the heart of Kolkata's commercial district, experts says its neo-classical façade and pillared entrance is a good blend of classical and traditional Indian style and reflects Kolkata's colonial heritage.
The hotel was first started somewhere around 1894 when Arathoon Stephen from America purchased Mrs Monk's boarding house. Later the hotel would be burnt to ashes. Like the Taj, the Grand has been witness to the first and second world wars, the Bengal famine, floods and riots.
SHIMLA'S OLD CHARM
The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla has special significance to the Oberoi Group as Rai Bahadur M S Oberoi, founder chairman of the Oberoi Group, started his job there on a paltry salary of Rs 50 per month.
Much later, Oberoi decided to padlock the hotel till it matched his expectation of what could be called an Oberoi property and which could also reflect its past.
With Mumbai-based P G Patki as its architect, Lim and Zeiler to do the lighting, the interiors were refurbished significantly when the hotel re-opened in 1997. Today it houses a heated indoor swimming pool, a spa run by Banyan Tree and a state-of-the-art fitness centre.
Started during British rule, the history of the Savoy hotel in Mussoorie can be traced back to Kripa Ram Jawhar in 1946. It was later taken over by his son Anand Kumar Jawhar in the 1960s.
But it changed hands again in 2005 when R P Singh, a Kanpur-based industrialist, bought it. Presently it is under renovation and will open in 2007. An old employee who has been working here for 26 years says the hotel's old structure has been retained.
"Even after renovation, the interiors and external facade will not change. The hotel is being redesigned to facilitate customers with modern facilities along with retaining the old charm," he says. The hotel has a large imperial dining room, big bathrooms and antique furniture.
GOING GRAND IN AGRA
ITC WelcomHeritage recently signed up with Parle International's The Grand Imperial in Agra, which is expected to start operations by the end of 2006. The property was locked up for 40 years as the family moved away to Mumbai.
"WelcomHeritage believes that each heritage property must have its own identity and should be a reflection of the owners," says Rakesh Mathur, president, ITC-WelcomHeritage.
When the hotel was closed, all furniture was removed except for old light fittings and fans. The company is trying to restore the splendid teakwood furniture and blend new furniture to give a balanced feel of a colonial and modern period.
The hotel also has a distinct architectural style of the Victorian era with large rooms, high ceilings and arches that will be retained along with the external facade. The construction is with biscuit bricks - commonly referred to Lahori bricks - and is similar to what has been used in the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Agra.
HISTORY IN DARJEELING
The ITC Fortune Central in Darjeeling celebrated 100 years last year. With new artefacts and a glass ceiling, its central area is like a greenhouse with orchids of all varieties that are placed strategically in different corners.
According to Mandeep Lamba, president, Fortune Park Hotels, the hotel has been renovated extensively. "In fact, it now has an atrium effect with a partially glazed roof and one side of the building fully glazed for a view of the Himalayas. Fortune Central needed the changes to remove its gloomy look," explains Lamba.
There are other hotels like WelcomHeritage's Narmada Jackson property in Jabalpur built in the 19th century and managed by the British in its early years and Windamere in Darjeeling that have a similar legacy of standing tall for over 100 years. Restorations in a majority of the properties are done keeping in mind the slice of history that they offer.