Taj Connemara to close down for a year

Vivanta by Taj Connemara, Chennai’s iconic 125-year-old heritage hotel/ File Photo

Vivanta by Taj Connemara, Chennai’s iconic 125-year-old heritage hotel/ File Photo

Vivanta by Taj Connemara, the city’s iconic 125-year-old heritage hotel, will close down for a year from May 10 for a comprehensive makeover aimed at re-creating the grandeur of its early past. The plan is to reopen it as an intimate high-end luxury hotel that takes guests back at least a century when they walk through the doors. This is a radical departure from its last makeover, done in 2005, when the hotel was re-designed to target trendy young hipsters with the launch of the loud Distil bar and chic pan Asian restaurant, Hip Asia. Although the team is being determinedly close-lipped about what exactly it will look like a year from now, it is likely that there will be some reshuffling as the focus moves towards recreating and rediscovering old menus and cuisines, which could mean that only the Verandah and Raintree restaurants will survive. The rooms, lobby and banquet halls will also be refurbished to look more like they once did – but with a distinct dash of luxury.

General Manager Ahmar Siddiqui describes the renovation as an “extensive enhancement”. It will be done by Structwel Designers and Consultants Private Limited (a Mumbai based Engineering consultancy, which also restored the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai). Promising that there will be no major changes to the structure, Siddiqui says the “planned shut down” is necessary because of the extensive work needed to “conserve and preserve the entire architecture of the hotel”. No additional buildings are planned on the 4.2 acre property and the existing greenery will remain untouched, including their dramatic old Raintree and two sturdy Nagavalli trees.

A part of Chennai’s history since the early 19 th Century, the property was originally a house bought by John Binny from The Nawab of Arcot in 1799. T. Somasundara Mudaly then acquired it, turning it into the Imperial Hotel in 1854. In 1886, it was rechristened ‘The Albany’. It was named The Connemara in 1890, after Lord Connemara, Robert Bourke. Although the building is purportedly 200 years old, dating back to the original garden house, Chennai historian S. Muthiah says nothing of the old structure remains. “So the oldest part of the hotel today dates back 125 years.”

A part of Chennai’s history since the early 19 th Century, the property was originally a house bought by John Binny from The Nawab of Arcot in 1799. The Art Deco Connemara building in 1890. Photo: Special Arrangement
A look at the bedroom in the yesteryear Taj Connemara. Photo: Special Arrangement

“The hotel has an emotional connect with the city because families have been associated with it for generations,” says Siddiqui. The staff, some of whom have been with them for up to three decades, are being relocated at various Taj properties, till the reopening. The hotel has been integral to the functioning of some clubs and associations. Walking past the ballroom, Siddiqui points out a plaque by the Rotary Club of Madras stating that they meet there ‘Every Tuesday at 1 pm since 10 May 1929.’ The Wednesday club also has been meeting here since 1975,” says Siddiqui. “They take the same table at Verandah every week, and always have the lunch buffet.” Then there’s the Madras Book Club, which has been gathering there for about 15 years. “These are important associations to us: we don’t make money off them and we don’t want to,” says Siddiqui, adding “They are associations we would like to continue, but those are decisions we need to take later.”

A look at the lobby in 1916 . Photo: Special Arrangement

Then there’s “Giggles: The Biggest Little Bookshop’, which has been run by Nalini Chettur from a tiny 100-square-foot space for 40 years. She moved here in 1974, with a grand total of Rs. 1000 in savings, and quickly became the city’s favourite bookseller thanks to her huge stock of handpicked books. She’s currently trying to sell off about half her stock to make it easier to rent a new space. Up at the Tower Block in Room 301, Executive Housekeeper Nagaraju Attivaram is supervising a team that is neatly wrapping and labelling paintings, antiques and mirrors as the rooms are emptied. Pointing at the huge rolls of bubble wrap lying on the floor, he says the first order of business is to take inventory of everything, then pack each piece carefully, from the ballroom’s antique Belgian chandeliers to unwieldy two poster teak beds. Currently all bookings are being diverted to the Taj’s other four hotels in the city – Taj Coromandel, Taj Club House, Vivanta by Taj-Fisherman’s Cove and The Gateway Hotel IT Expressway Chennai. Meanwhile, amidst the talk of recreating old menus and reconnecting with past guests, the Taj is planning to convert closure into celebration.

A closing down party? Very probably.

End of an era
After the 1937 renovation, estimated at Rs 5,75,000/, a hotel press release boasted about its “cool refreshing air delivered through the newest air conditioning apparatus” The first published tariff of the hotel for a room on single occupancy was Rs 10/- with breakfast and Rs 17.80/- for room with all meals The hotel’s deluxe wing was almost totally destroyed on Friday the Thirteenth (Feb, 1981), when a fire broke out in Spencer’s building. The high rise wall in between saved the hotel. The piano in the lobby dates back to 1922 and used to be played in the ballroom in the post war days in the evenings. It’s still played on weekdays in the lobby. The Nagavelli well of the hotel never dries up even when all other wells in Madras dry during the peak of summer. The stone pillars in the Raintree pathway and wooden carvings embellished in the grand staircase wall date back to 16th and 17th century old temples of Mahabalipuram.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 3:42:59 am |