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The Grand Oriental days


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By D.C. Ranatunga

A new hotel is opened in Colombo. An old one is to change hands, according to news reports.  The Movenpick Hotel was opened. The owners of Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) are looking for a buyer.

Movenpick is the latest. GOH is one of the two oldest dating back to the 1860s. The other is the Galle Face Hotel.

In the age of ‘travel by sea’, GOH was strategically located just opposite the Colombo harbour. The passenger liners berthed outside the harbour and the passengers reached the jetty by boat. As they walked out they got a fine view of the Fort.

“In few of the world’s large ports is the traveller offered so pleasant a prospect upon landing,” an early traveller wrote. “There is usually a slum to be traversed before the surroundings become attractive, but here we are at once in pleasant places. Upon leaving the jetty we arrive at the Fort, which in olden times bore its literal meaning; but now indicates that portion of Colombo occupied chiefly by the residence of the Governor, the offices of the Government and of the British merchants.

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“We are impressed by the prosperous appearance of the place. The streets are broad, the roads are good, the merchants’ offices and stores are capacious an in many instances possess considerable architectural merit, while the hotels are superior to any others in the East, a matter of no small importance to the traveller and resident alike. We are at once confronted by one of them: the Grand Oriental Hotel faces us as we leave the harbour.”

GOH was popular both among the overseas and internal travellers. With the plantations gradually opening up, the British businessmen were frequent visitors. With Colombo becoming a commercial centre, entrepreneurs showed interest in opening offices of their companies. There was constant movement which created a need for lodgings.

The earliest prototype lodgings in Colombo are said to have evolved from a single building type, namely, the bungalow. They were basically lodgings and chummeries of a modest scale. The majority of the occupants have been identified as male bachelors, mainly young clerks, traders or trainee planters awaiting a posting in the upcountry plantations. The hotels in effect were boarding houses. The occupants don’t seem to have got a fair deal, with most of the facilities been described as ‘primitive and unhygienic’. The staff too have been mostly indifferent and undependable.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1865, more ships started coming to the East and with Colombo becoming a prominent port, the number of travellers began to increase – resulting in the need for better accommodation facilities.

Earliest records on hotels carry the names of the Royal Hotel, the Galle Face Hotel, the Grand Oriental Hotel and the Bristol Hotel, all of which have been started during 1835-80.

In addition to being close to the passenger jetty, the occupants got a fine view of the port and the northern shoreline towards Negombo from the upper storeys of the GOH.

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The GOH site has an interesting past. It had once been part of the Dutch Governor’s residence. With Governor Frederick North taking over the British administration in 1802, it had been occupied by General Macdowall, Commander of the armed forces. The site owned by the Government had been sold in the early 1870s when the military buildings were gradually moved out of Fort. It was bought by the Ceylon Hotels Company which soon had a chain of hotels including the GOH, Mount Lavinia Hotel and Queen’s Hotel in Kandy.

When the GOH was opened on 2 August 1879, it had the largest number of rooms – one hundred – and it was soon to become the most prestigious hotel in the island. Accommodation was available for 200 guests and the large dining room had room for 300 guests.

Billiards being very popular at the time, the hotel had four billiard tables – helping it to score a point above the others which did not have any.  This facility helped to attract the more affluent travellers as well as the richer community in Colombo.

With the increasing demand, extensions to the building had been done in 1881 and the hotel had been virtually rebuilt a few years later spending over Rs. 2 million, which was considered the most expensive hotel project at the time.

A famous architects’ firm in Bombay (now Mumbai), Stevenson and Gregson had done the architectural and structural designs in great detail, running to over 500 drawings. Ralph Macdonald & Company were the contractors. The new five-storeyed building had 250 bedrooms.

The management of GOH was taken over by Bank of Ceylon in 1955. The hotel was renamed Hotel Taprobane and the scope of facilities were reduced.

As the years went by international hotel chains from Inter-Continental to Hilton opened hotels with modern, better facilities and GOH was no longer a much-sought-after hotel. A night club was opened, which was soon to become popular, particularly with the more affluent youngsters. The executive types in Colombo offices picked GOH as a convenient spot for lunch due to close proximity to their workplaces.

Following a facelift in later years the management preferred to change to the old name and today the Grand Oriental Hotel is among the cherished buildings in the city. It continues its service using the slogan ‘A Legend Yet Living’.

(Source: ‘Images of British Ceylon’)


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