The Grand Hotel, Sri Lanka's National Treasure - A Hotel Design Case Study
Images of this hotel design project can be found in our gallery section.
With a heritage of over 120 years, this Grade 1 listed building has benefitted from superior hotel design and interior design. Once an excellent example of an Elizabethan Manor House encompassing genuine British Colonial style, oozing nostalgia from a bygone era. Currently The Hotel carries a status of international importance, indeed it was identified by National Geographic Magazine as a 'must visit' when in Sri Lanka. Little is known outside of the island of the role that this hotel played in the fabric of ancient and modern Sri Lanka gaining the accreditation of 'National Heritage Property' by the Department of Archeology in the Nineties.
The Days of The Raj
Situated at high altitude in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka (known as 'Little England' or 'Switzerland of the East') the property's journey to began as the private residence of Sir Edward Barnes, Governor of Ceylon during the days of the British Raj. Governor Barnes realised that the invigorating climate made it an ideal location for a military sanatorium and also for his new home. Settlers and British visitors soon developed enormous enthusiasm for the small hamlet which quickly began to buzz with cricket matches, race meetings and elk hunting.
After the advent of the motorcar, and the construction of a perilous road (masterminded by Governor Barnes) the area became more popular for casual visitors wishing to escape the oppressive heat of the City. This time also saw the commencement of an engineering marvel in the form of a rail line. This rail journey provided the most adventurous and breathtaking railway experience Ceylon offered and remains to this day the most popular mode of transport to Nuwara Eliya.
The Birth of a Hotel
After his return to UK, and with Nuwara Eliya more accessible and growing in popularity, Governor Barnes' original property gave way to become a small, basic, single story guesthouse, 'Barnes Hall' . This period became a crucial one for Nuwara Eliya, even the devastation of coffee was offset by the success of tea with mountainsides covered in tea bushes glistening in the sun.
Within this period Barnes Hall progressed from basic hotel to multi-storey and the beginnings of the aptly named Grand Hotel. Mock-tudor first manifested in Britain in the mid to late 19th Century and quickly became an influence in the British Colonies including the hill stations of India and Ceylon. It was almost certainly the Grand that first adopted the mock-tudor style - probably in the 1880's when the hotel was converted from Barnes Hall.
To meet the increased demand for accommodation of a high standard expansion of The Grand Hotel became essential and such was its success that the hotel soon gained promotion to 'Vice-regal residence' after becoming a favourite haunt for royalty. By the 1930's the third floor had been added to the hotel and on February 4th 1948 Ceylon gained Independence from the British and a new era dawned for this gem of a hotel.
Sympathetic hotel design has ensured every corner of the hotel has retained its grandeur. This hotel is steeped in history and 'British-ness' with beautiful craftsmanship and fine architectural details still visible, amongst the rambling corridors with their fine dados and elegant cornicing in teak, the ornate lounges and the hidden snuggeries blend beautifully with the newer wing which offers sophisticated and fine dining. High ceilings, wooden floors throughout and solid wooden doors as well as a diversity of period furniture complete the overall look of the hotel.
Retaining 'Old England'
Even the charm and beauty of the surrounding gardens emit the quaint charm of 'Old England', with plant-filled gardens and beautifully manicured lawns with parasol-shaded sets of wrought iron furniture. There is no doubt that from around the inception of Nuwara Eliya, the British residents had understood the need to transform the appearance of the landscape into an English countryside by introducing native plants.
Hotels such as this do not enjoy the luxury of being able to stand still in time and whilst preserving and respecting its history, progression is vital. As such an ambitious interior renovation project to span two further years is planned, the interior works having begun in 2010.
A Wealth of Archive Information
The Silkroad Interior Design have already completed the internal reception areas as well as introducing two new dining experiences: a Thai Restaurant and the Tea Lounge and Tea Verandah. The Tea Lounge was ingeniously transformed from an office during the renovations in 2012 with gold wallpaper lining the walls offsetting hand-painted vintage tea posters and display cabinets filled with antique copper, brass and silver tea sets.
Antique furniture, original ironmongery for the fire surrounds and door furniture as well as all the silverware was personally sourced by the interior designers in the UK and imported to Sri Lanka. The importance of authenticity is uncompromised. The Tea Verandah - an entirely new structure - sympathetically unites 'original' with 'new' and provides one of the best places to view the landscape of the tea country.
First impressions are striking and upon entering through the portal you will proceed into the doorman's ante-room - a reminder of the days when visitors on horseback would remove their protective clothing before entering the hotel. Welcoming large, blackened wrought iron fire places which still burn logs today as has happened throughout the hotel's distinguished past. The hotel capitalises on its history and everywhere there are glimpses of days gone by with an invaluable collection of archive photography.
Gold Buttoned Uniforms and Vanilla Tea
The newly renovated and stylish reception lobby more than nods to the days of the Empire with heavily framed coronation portraits of the British royal family. In contrast, on the opposite wall are photographs of tea plantation workers who were responsible for creating the wealth of the Empire. The furniture and wall panelling were chosen using existing designs found elsewhere in the hotel and those invaluable archive images. Instead of the usual check-in mayhem, guests are ushered into the adjacent lounge and given a hot, rolled-up face towel proffered with silver tongs by a waiter in a uniform consisting of a white tunic, with gold-coloured buttons and a white sarong and then there's the welcome drink: vanilla tea.
Perhaps the most precious and unique part of the hotel is the Billiards Room which remains untouched, with its timber planked raked ceilings and exposed wooden trusses. Three antique full-sized billiard tables dominate the room made by Burroughes & Watts of London, who helped pioneer the game and were given a royal patronage by Queen Victoria who was a keen billiards' player. Original cues survive as do a collection of 35 ivory billiard balls, their colour faded, but nevertheless a fascinating addition to what is essentially a billiard's museum.
Character and Colonialism
Interior redecoration has now shifted to the bedrooms and suites with the opening of the new 'Queen Elizabeth II Suite' in November 2013. Each bedroom is different in size and aspect which naturally affords the interior designers the chance to individualise - always ensuring the essential character and colonialism is retained throughout.
Sahran Abeysundara, Lead Designer at The Silkroad Interior Design concludes "It has been an absolute honour to be involved throughout the various stages of the interior design and witness the hotel's continuous evolvement, as it has done so successfully in the past. The Silkroad Interior Design is based in UK which gives us a huge advantage in being able to source original antiques and furniture for export. I can't wait to get started on the next phase! What is so special is that the owner's of the hotel understand that they are merely custodians for the next generation and such is their sense of loyalty and duty to the hotel they will ensure it retains its place not only in the ancient but also now in the modern history of Sri Lanka".
Still Partying On
The Grand Hotel is that rare treat which successfully manages to move forward with the ever-changing world of tourism but effortlessly retains its record of an age that sadly seems to be slipping away. The hotel has lost little of its Edwardian charm whilst keeping up with the demands of the modern day visitor. It is a dichotomy both in appearance - a mock tudor pile in the middle of a tropical island - and in its graciousness and grandeur, having become a favourite for the European jet-setting crowd and the young Sri Lankans who liven up the atmosphere with their up-beat parties celebrating the season in style.
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