The demolition of Ashby Hotel, once a popular meeting place for leading political figures and film stars, has closed the chapter permanently on a heritage property that was considered to be Tiruchi’s first western-style hotel.
Centrally located near the Tiruchi Railway Junction on Rockins Road, Ashby Hotel began life as an upmarket department store run by the Spencer’s chain during the British Raj.
The group, owned by British merchant John William Spencer, began retail trading in India from 1863, catering to a Western clientele. The Tiruchi branch of Spencer’s was inaugurated in 1923, for the benefit of British military officers stationed in the Cantonment area.
Among those who remember the posh store is T.R. Shembagavalli, 74, whose father, retired army Captain T.N. Ramaswami, eventually purchased it in the mid-1950s with the idea of converting it into a hotel.
“I have gone as a little girl to visit Spencer’s, because that was when my maternal grandfather’s hotel Ashok Bhavan was being constructed across the road. My father would inspect the site, and then take us to the opposite side to look at all the wonderful things put on display in the Spencer’s portico,” Ms. Shembagavalli, a retired doctor, told The Hindu.
The profile of the property changed once it became Ashby Hotel, as its distinctive colonial style of architecture with arched hallways and extensive woodwork made it a top stopover for leading social figures of the day.
Online sources mention that a portion of the hotel had retained the original floor tiles from the 1920s, adding to the charm of the heritage interiors.
“The city’s social gatherings would be held in the long main hall. Ashby was [former Chief Minister] M.G. Ramachandran’s favourite hotel whenever he was in the city, and Room No. 5 was always reserved for him. I remember seeing Ms. Jayalalitha at a party held to celebrate the 100 days of her debut movie Vennira Aadai (1965), looking beautiful and stylish,” said Ms. Shembagavalli.
The hotel underwent numerous renovations, and facilities such as a bar, extra rooms and shopping arcade were added over the years. Ashby’s bar attracted patrons from in and around Tiruchi for several decades, enticing them with its discreet ambience despite being bang in the centre of an increasingly crowded commercial area.
In later years, Ashby became known more as a budget hotel, with a decline in maintenance standards.
Ms. Shembagavalli said her father was actively involved in the hotel’s management well after the 1970s, with her brothers stepping in gradually as his health declined. Mr. Ramaswami passed away on October 19, 2014.
Letting go of Ashby was an emotionally charged decision for the family, said Ms. Shembagavalli, who shifted back to India permanently after practising as a doctor in the US, to take care of her ailing parents. “Demolition was the only option because renovation was not feasible. It was sad, but the only way the family could move on,” she said.