Having walked through the reception area, Alfresco, Legacy Lounge and Tea Lounge, it was time for us to move towards the rooms in the different blocks.
In the Edwardian block, built between 1901 and 1910 to commemorate the reign of King Edward in England, on some windowsill or corner, as in every other part of the heritage building, we found flowerpots that had seen different functions back in the days – a teapot here or a wine goblet there stands a mute witness of years gone by monogrammed GEH! And there stood the grand staircase that carried guests to their rooms and suites in the floors above when lifts had not yet come to be the order of the day. This staircase, however, was probably out of bounds for the native housekeeping staffs before independence. For them stood an iron spiral staircase that led to an opening from each floor from the very top to the bottom, that now stands, perhaps as a decoration of the Atrium area with the glass-covered Gazebos that emanated a strange retro charm in the late afternoon light peeping through wide-open windows, the space where we now stood.
Like many other items retrieved during the handover, the three cages that now hang on top of the Gazebos from iron rivets have also been reused to decorate the area, without being quite sure about how they had been used in the past. They could however be props used during once-famous cabaret performances at the popular Maxim’s Bar.
At the end of one of the balconies of the Edwardian block, Madhumita showed us, a 6-foot gigantic concrete white urn clearly visible from the road. This urn is an enlarged replica of a trophy Mr A L Bilimoria, the Chairman had received from none other than Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II of England during her visit in 1961 when his usually unsuccessful horse had ended up winning a great race! As was the practice in those days, trophies and exploits would often be displayed on pillars on the terrace of homes and palaces and there was no way an elated Mr Bilimoria was missing this opportunity to show the owner of the house across the road what he had won! The original trophy of course lies now with the Bilimoria family living abroad.
Interestingly different phases and parts of the old building had been built at different levels and hence far more challenging to restore than a normal building. Not only were the levels different, but the building materials were different too! While the thick walls of the Victorian block, built between 1837 and 1901, were built of Bengal tiles plastered with only lime and ‘surki’ or powdered bricks, the Edwardian block, built years later had a steel structure constructed on vertical and horizontal steel trusses, riveted together. Some of these iron rivets, dating back to 1830 imported from a certain Dorman Long & Co. from Middlesbrough, England almost a century before the Howrah Bridge was built, have been left open through balconies and suites of the Edwardian block to narrate a story of a century-old world! With the Contemporary Block, built after the renovation started in 2007 and the Edwardian Block now open, I will perhaps go back once more when the whole of the Victorian Block is opened to the public.
Walking through these immaculately polished black and white chequered floored corridors for the Edwardian Block, we then moved towards the Black bordered beige floored corridors of the Victorian Block – the elevation in this one, clearly discernible as we walk through. This wing is yet to be opened up to the public in full, but Madhumita was kind enough to take us to one of the suite rooms that looked more like a little flat to us! There was a sitting area (with a separate bathroom) and a bedroom (that could probably accommodate three or four king-size beds) with a study table and of course another bigger bathroom. Special mention should be made of the switchboards and the bathroom fittings (definitely retrieved again from the dilapidated heritage wings).
Noticeably, all the rooms and suites in both the Victorian as well as the Edwardian suites are technically huge and almost double and sometimes even triple the size of normal hotel rooms, in keeping with the standards of the time when they were introduced. To retain the flavour and the construction, the renovation thankfully did not include breaking these up into smaller rooms. Each room has ample space and wide-open glass windows covered with wooden blinds offering perfect view and loads of light. The extra spaces in front of these windows have been made into seating arrangements where it is easy enough to spend the day with a book and a coffee cup!
As we walked back Madhumita shared with us something that she had heard – in April 1884 the Auckland Hotel apparently saw some very revered guests over for a week or probably a fortnight – legends say it was members of the Tagore Family, who chose to stay away from public view or reach to cope with the rather unexpected suicide of Kadambari Devi, the wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore. It gave me goosebumps once again to imagine I was walking the same corridors and coming down the same stairs that had perhaps witnessed the presence of such exalted guests. Almost at the fag end of our walk, we once more crossed the Atrium and walked further down the corridor to a spiral staircase that brought us to the place where it all started – The Bakery!
So, this spiral staircase and most of the bakery has been retained as it had been when the journey started. Down at the cosily lit up bakery and the extended Wilson’s Pub, the burnt red brick walls and the generous use of old artifacts ranging from kettles to oven parts to old luggage racks provide a completely contrasting feel of the old and the new world enmeshed together in the quaintest possible way.
Inside the bakery it becomes evident why the humongous dough kneaders were used – it would have certainly taken a whole lot of dough to be baked in that oven that now has been redesigned as a private dining area and fitted with about 4 tables for seating guests. I mean, imagine the size of the oven if it can now fit 4 tables with 2-3 chairs each! To keep part of the flavour intact, a section of the red brick wall of the oven still stands on one side. Manufactured by Bakers Perkins, London, who used to make smaller ovens for homes, this was the first of their large industrial ovens for a full-fledged bakery. The door to the oven of course has been removed but some parts of the machinery have been preserved to retain the feel. Scattered on the red brick walls are advertisements from a time as old as 1840.
On one end of the bakery, a glass door opens to a sort of a small yard with a wall adorned with a pride rainbow with good old Mata Hari poised in the middle in black and white – a somewhat strange wall art in a strange place, we thought, but considering Wilson’s Pub in Kolkata is the only venue for KittySu parties and shows, it made sense! The other end of the bakery opens up to the Wilson’s Bar – the glass-topped glass-panelled pub at the Lalit Great Eastern that apart from being a very open and welcoming pub is also where the KittySu shows are hosted. If you are wondering what KittySu is – check out this link. Interestingly, old luggage racks from the heritage building have been used as tables at the pub.
It was close to 6 when we wrapped up our walk and sat down tired at one of the tables for the “Hi Chai” at the Bakery. As we bid farewell to Madhumita and sat down to gorge on the sumptuous savouries and confectionery items placed in front of us in miniature luggage trolley style trays, we wondered yet again, what a great experience it has been walking through the corridors of history and immersing ourselves in old tales. A friend of mine told me recently that the décor of the Lalit Great Eastern has become a bit of “neither here-nor-there” thing, thanks to the requirements of modern 5-star hotels and the will of the owners to retain portions of the old world – rolled into one. Could be, for him, but for me – the old world – starting from brass and charcoal irons, bread moulds, ovens, dough kneaders, to old silver water jugs, luggage racks, old furniture, iron beams with rivets, brass pillars, burnt brick walls, and even the old spiral staircases retrofitted into this modern 5-star will continue to appeal, irrespective of its glam new cover.
We can’t thank Madhumita Bose enough for the wonderful tour and all the stories! So, if you want to walk through history, this walk might be a great idea.
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