Past Reincarnated: Adaptive Reuse of Old Mansions

Past Reincarnated: Adaptive Reuse of Old Mansions
The Zara flagship store in the Ismail building in Mumbai Photo Credit: StevenK /

Return on investment, heritage value, or emotional appeal, have started to work in favour of preservation of India’s crumbling heritage and stately mansions

Uttara Gangopadhyay
August 05 , 2020
05 Min Read

When Iftekar Ahsan, better known as the founder of Calcutta Walks (a walking tour company), along with a friend, acquired a dilapidated residential building located in north Kolkata, it took many by surprise. But Ahsan was determined to prevent the demolition of this 1920 townhouse, a representative of the ‘golden era of Calcutta’s architecture’. Ahsan and his team, aided by conservation architect Akhil Ranjan Sarkar, literally restored it brick by brick, and scenographer Swarup Dutta designed the interiors, often using upcycled products from other similar old buildings. Inaugurated in 2018, the Calcutta Bungalow is one of the best bed and breakfast addresses in town, both in terms of heritage and hospitality.

Although pulling down crumbling mansions and replacing them with modern buildings is a common trend in most Indian cities and towns, Ahsan is one of the few entrepreneurs across the country who are finding value in restoring heritage buildings, which might have otherwise bitten the dust, through adaptive reuse.


A traditional house or 'Haveli' decorated with wooden carving in the old town of Ahmedabad

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Ahmedabad, the first Indian city to earn the ‘heritage’ tag from UNESCO, has also seen some of its centuries-old havelis (palatial homesteads) saved from demolition, thanks to a city-based real estate developer Rajiv Patel, who was astonished with the architecture and history of many of the havelis while out on a heritage walk. With support from his business partners, he acquired the Deewanji ni Haveli, a dilapidated over 250-year-old residential house with ornate architecture, and restored it. They turned it into an office of the City Heritage Centre (CHC) from where the team now runs their heritage preservation and restoration enterprise. Patel soon realised that it is not easy to convince people to invest in heritage preservation unless there is enough returns from the project. So one of the main focus of CHC is to create a heritage value chain through ‘Economics, Ecosystem and Enterprise’ to make restoration a sustainable and lucrative investment.

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Swinging into a new day ! This is a 150 year old beautifully restored Gujarati Haveli (Mansion) in the heart of the heritage city of Ahmedabad. . . . . #supportlocalbusinesses

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So when he acquired the French Haveli, Patel turned it into a boutique heritage homestay. The quirky name is a reflection of an Indo-French heritage restoration collaboration that happened in the 2000s, when the French team restored the building and stayed here until 2005. The now renamed Dodhia Haveli, would have likely made way for a modern high rise if it was not for Nairobi-based businessman Chandrakant Dodhia. A stay in this wooden picturesque and artistically furnished heritage house combined with a visit to the surrounding markets is a lesson in Ahmedabad’s traditional culture.

The Baghban Haveli bought by brothers Kaushik, Rajendra and Tejas Majitha, and the dormitory-styled Bhavashi House have also been saved through the enterprise of Patel.

Although most would not associate a politician with heritage restoration, Vijay Goel was the saviour of the Dharampura Haveli in Delhi. It is said that the haveli was built in 1887 as a commercial and residential building reflecting late Mughal architecture with elements of Victorian and Hindu architecture woven in. But with the passage of time, the building fell into severe disrepair. Painstakingly restored, Haveli Dharampura offers a luxurious stay, its 13 rooms tastefully designed in traditional style and fitted with modern amenities.

Zara flagship store in the Ismail building in Mumbai

Apart from entrepreneurs finding value in investing in restoration of heritage mansions, commercial enterprises too are coming forward. The more than a century old Ismail Building in Mumbai’s Flora Fountain area caught the headlines when fashion brand Zara moved into it after the place was restored by conservation architect Kirtida Unwalla. It was sheer nostalgia that drove FMCG company, Emami, to buy the old mansion from where the company began its journey in the early 1970s.

Located adjacent to the famous Marble Palace of Rajen Mullick, this building was built by Swarup Chandra Mullick almost 200 years ago and sported Neo Classical architecture. Finding the building in ruins, Emami bought it in 2016 and handed it over to heritage conservation architect Manish Chakraborty to restore it back to its former glory. Today, the company runs its CSR operations from here among other things. Old Portuguese and Goan homes are also getting a fresh lease of life from brands, such as Paper Boat Collective in Sangolda or The Linen Shop in Campal, who are discovering them as niche addresses.

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