“Wait till you see the oven,” said our guide for the day, guest relation executive Ms. Chandrani, as we gawked at the vats—the size of a mini jacuzzi—where the dough used to be kneaded. Today, they serve as planters, placed strategically at the entrance of the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel in Kolkata. This was only the beginning of many surprises that the renovated hotel had in store.
As we trooped behind our guide for a heritage walk through this iconic hotel, she regaled us with the history of the property. In the 1830s, David Wilson, affectionately called ‘Dainty Davie’, opened a bakery in Calcutta. Wilson’s famous breads used to be made in the vats we had just glimpsed. Apparently, the bakery became so popular with the officers of the Raj that they urged Wilson to open a luxury hotel.
Dainty Dave acquired the building adjacent to his bakery and opened the Wilson’s Hotel in 1840. He gradually expanded the property so that even today, the hotel’s formal address is 1, 2, and 3 Old Court House Street. It was first renamed as The Auckland Hotel and then as the Great Eastern Hotel Wine & General Purveying Co. Back then, there used to be a Multiple Shop or a departmental store, on the ground floor. To quote Rudyard Kipling’s description of it in The City of Dreadful Night, “a man could walk in at one end, buy a complete outfit, a wedding present, or seeds for the garden, have an excellent meal, a burra peg and if the barmaid was agreeable, walk out at the other end engaged to be married.”
The long name was finally shortened to The Great Eastern Hotel in 1915. It was so luxurious and well-managed that Mark Twain called it “the best hotel east of the Suez.” However, after a long and distinguished career of hosting dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Queen Elizabeth II, the hotel finally began to deteriorate in the 70s and the government of West Bengal acquired it. Despite its best efforts, the state government was unable to turn the tide and the hotel was finally sold off to the only qualified bidder who applied. The new owners, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, an enterprise of Bharat Hotels Limited, found it a difficult task; it was a challenge to renovate a heritage property. The new owners took possession of the hotel in 2005 and after seven years of meticulous restoration, the iconic bakery was re-opened in 2013 and the hotel a year later.
Instead of demolishing the hotel, as many had feared then, they added a new block that has all the amenities required of a five-star hotel and renovated the existing hotel, seamlessly merging the two. Today, the hotel has three parts: the Contemporary Block, the Edwardian Block (1901-10) and the Victorian Block (1837-1901). The former two are already operational while the Victorian Block will be opened soon.
As we walked through the heritage Edwardian block, we stopped several times to admire the interesting re-use of old artefacts like bread moulds and charcoal-irons that have been converted into flower pots. Old German-silver water jugs monogrammed GEH serve as plant holders. Any old furniture that had been salvaged are being used as corner pieces across the hotel. Old luggage racks have been converted into tables at Wilson’s Pub. Elsewhere, iron beams with rivets have been left exposed in various places around the property, including rooms, to give a feel of olden times (interestingly, similar beams were used in the construction of the Howrah Bridge). Even the old iron spiral staircases have been re-used, like the one we used to descend to the bakery towards the end of our walk.
Chandrani reminded us that GEH was the first hotel in India to get an electricity connection in 1883. Interestingly, it was also the first to have an Indian on its board of directors in 1859, the author Peary Chand Mitra.
We walked down to the Atrium Lobby with its colourful gazebos. Two cage-like structures hung above them. Although nobody knows what these cages were used for, we can speculate that these might have been used during cabaret performances at Maxim’s, the hotel’s popular bar and restaurant. The piano, again from Maxim’s, today sits in a corner of the main lobby. Manufactured in Hamburg by MF Rachals & Co., it was restored by Braganza and Co. of Free School Street in Kolkata. It is in perfect playing condition.
At one end of a corridor stood a huge concrete urn. Turns out that it was the replica of a trophy. To quote journalist Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay from his article in the Frontline (2005), “There is an interesting story relating to the Queen's visit [in 1961]. The hotel's chairman at that time, AL Bilimoria, owned a horse not known for its success at the races. That year, the Queen herself was to present the trophy at the Calcutta races. The chairman's horse surprisingly won the event. What remains unknown to most people of Kolkata is that a six-foot concrete replica of the cup that he received from the Queen stands hidden in a balcony in the back quarters of the hotel even today.”
We browsed through more old collectibles—an eclectic collection of old statues, tea dispensers, decanters, liquor bottles and other bric-a-brac in the Legacy Lounge and the Tea Lounge. Finally, we descended to the bakery.
The old oven, about as large as a fair-sized room, has now been redesigned as a private dining area. In deference to the legacy, a part of the old brick wall has been left exposed. The Bakers Perkins machineries used by the old bakery have been strategically placed as decorative pieces. Copies of old advertisements dating back to October 1840 hung on one wall, announcing the opening of Wilson’s Hotel at 1 Old Court House ‘formerly occupied by Messrs. Thacker and Co. and the Sans Souci Theatre’.
“When the Victorian wing opens,” said Madhumita Bose Banerjee, Manager – PR and Marcom of the hotel, “you will see many more salvaged heritage artefacts on display.”
Quite appropriately, our walk ended with high tea at the Bakery.
With prior appointment and a fixed cover charge, anyone can take a guided heritage tour of the hotel. The Heritage Walk with high tea at the Tea Lounge is Rs550 plus taxes, the Heritage Walk with high tea at the Gazebo is Rs750 plus taxes and the Heritage Walk with Wine, Cheese & Snacks is Rs1,250 plus taxes. For more information and bookings call +91 33 4444 7777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.