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2007 Award of Distinction

Galle Fort Hotel

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Project TitleGalle Fort Hotel

Location28 Church Street, Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Size1,265 square metres

CostUS$ 1,000,000

Responsible PartyKarl Steinberg and Christoper Ong

Heritage ArchitectChanna Daswatte (MICD Associates)

ContractorAsoka de Silva (Siaan Homes)

Date of CompletionDecember 2003


Context

The port of Galle, on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, had a long and colourful history as an entrepôt and colonial foothold for a succession of Portuguese, Dutch, and English settlers. The varied history and cosmopolitan nature of the town is reflected in its population today, which includes Muslims who can trace their ancestry back to early Arab traders and Burghers of mixed Eurasian descent.

The Old Town of Galle was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage property in 1988. The key landmark of the town is the granite-and-earth bastioned fortress of Galle, which was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1663. It is the one of the largest and most finely preserved examples of early modern European fortifications in South and South-East Asia.

A wealth of colonial architecture is contained within the town’s walls, including the Dutch Reformed Church and several colonial-era courtyard mansions, of which Number 28 Church Street is possibly the grandest example. Today the Galle Fort Hotel, this residence was once the home of the prominent Macan Markar Muslim clan, whose family jewellery firm was well known for its sapphires, such as the 182-carat “Star of Bombay” now in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  

Building History

The mansion at Number 28 Church Street is in the style that originated in the Portuguese colonial period, a type that was retained, for its climatic advantages, by later European settlers. The design conforms to the layout of townhouses that were built in Galle in the eighteenth century, though on a more majestic scale. The basic typology consists of a colonnaded verandah facing onto the street, with a passage leading between two large rooms (usually the principal bedrooms) into a large central hall. A second, interior, verandah looks onto a garden courtyard where a service block is located. Its upper storey contains more rooms that usually open out onto a shared verandah.   

Careful investigation showed that the building was significantly altered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A massive plaster archway was added between the entry passage and the central hall for the celebration of a wedding there in the 1930s, reputedly by the self-styled picaresque French dandy, the “Comte de Mauny Talvande”.  In addition, the rear verandah was extended and enclosed with windows. Furthermore, a new floor was added to the Dutch warehouse in the back courtyard, above the magnificent 30-foot (nine metre) high colonnade that employs forced perspective to create the illusion of length in the oblong space: the columns are spaced closer together towards the end of the courtyard.

With the exodus of commerce from Galle to Colombo after the British development of the port there in the nineteenth century, many of the old mansions of Galle were only occasionally occupied and fell into decay, Number 28 included. It ceased to be used as a residence in the 1950s, after which it became a bakery, a post office and then an insurance office. It ultimately regained its link with the jewellery business, albeit in rather reduced circumstances, with its transformation into a lapidary workshop, when the once-grand courtyard was filled with outhouses and other buildings. When it was acquired by its present owners in 2003, the building was abandoned and derelict.

Project History

The present owners of the mansion moved from Australia to Sri Lanka with the mission of saving the building. In keeping with the conditions set by the Sri Lanka National Board of Investment, whose approval was needed to complete the sale, it was decided to transform the house into a luxury boutique hotel so as to provide the financial means to sustain the conserved building and to also help Galle capitalize on its World Heritage status by attracting tourists. The project was entirely privately funded and carried out by local craftsmen under the supervision of a student of Geoffrey Bawa, the founder of the architectural movement that has become known as Tropical Modernism. 

Project Scope and Framework

The project had the twin objectives of conserving the historic structure and creating a world-class luxury hotel. The project posed great challenges, not least of which was deciding how to treat the diversity of architectural character that reflected the different periods of construction activity. It was decided not to return the building to its original eighteenth-century condition, but rather to respect the various incarnations of the building over the centuries. Later additions were retained wherever they remained prominent and were not harmful to the building fabric. 

The conversion of formerly non-residential spaces into bedrooms and the additions of bathrooms where such facilities had not existed previously called for a light touch and innovative design solutions. Such interventions had to preserve the original appearance of the house while accommodating its new modern functions. The same sensitivity applied to the creation of a dining room in the main hall and a café and lounge area on the entrance verandah.

A more radical approach was required in the addition of a swimming pool in the courtyard and the construction of an additional block of bedrooms opposite the existing colonnaded wing. Both were vital to the viability of the hotel and were executed in a style complementary to the original structures.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The first step in the conservation of the mansion was the removal of incompatible structures in the courtyard and within the buildings.  Once partitions and dropped ceiling panels had been removed, the front building was revealed to be an almost intact villa of the Dutch colonial period. 

The street façade of the building, with its colonnaded verandah, had changed considerably since its heyday with the construction of a low screen wall between the columns and the addition of a modern gypsum ceiling. The restoration project aimed to recreate the grandeur of the entrance and to develop a semi-enclosed space for a bar and café along the verandah. Pivoting louvered screens replaced the low wall between the columns, providing the required privacy to café customers while maintaining the dignity of the colonnade. This was brought in line with the rest of the building by remoulding the capitals, which had been executed in ersatz pseudo-Doric style, into the clean Tuscan type of the colonnaded courtyard wing.

Likewise, the inner verandah overlooking the courtyard had been expanded during the British period with a shed roof and square colonettes. In the restoration, these were completely replaced with moulded plaster Tuscan columns and the roof was retiled with the original type of Portuguese tiles.

Ceilings presented a significant problem throughout the restoration. In the central hall, the wooden ceiling had been obscured by cement sheets, depriving the space of its original loftiness. The dropped ceiling was removed only to find that the wooden structures above had deteriorated considerably due to roof leakage. New timber beams were put in place, and wooden ceiling planks of 300-year-old jakwood (Artocarpus Heterophyllus) were salvaged from throughout the building to create a new ceiling. A gap was left between the edge of the ceiling and the wall on both sides, with sandblasted glass panels installed to let in light from skylights in the roof during the daytime and from bulbs strung above the ceiling at night. Originally, lighting would have been provided by paraffin oil lamps mounted on the walls.

Where possible, original materials were salvaged, but if original materials could not be used replacements were specially commissioned. For instance, traditional lime mortar and lime plaster were used extensively to match the original mortar and plaster. Likewise, a small brick was produced by a local kiln to match the original bricks, which were used most notably in reconstructing a large archway that had been cemented over in the early 1900s. Innovative material solutions were devised to accommodate the practical needs of a hotel. For example, in lieu of terracotta flooring, a coloured terrazzo was created using the local golden sand and was given a honey coloured patina by waxing.  

Important Issues

The paramount consideration was the reconciliation of the old fabric of the house with the new needs of the hotel. As required by the building code, fire alarms and a new electrical system were installed, along with new plumbing. The challenge was highlighted in the addition of a north wing in the courtyard, which was needed to expand the capacity of the hotel to 14 rooms. It was decided that the new wing should complement the older structure but be visibly different. The conservation architect and the owners conceived a similarly colonnaded building with a wooden second storey, albeit with different proportions and the architectural style of a later colonial period. This design intervention thus created a complimentary prospect down the length of the courtyard, while avoiding dumb replication. 

Project Sustainability and Viability

The Galle Fort Hotel has flourished since opening its doors in 2003. Both the hotel and its restaurant have received very positive customer and media reviews. In 2005 it was named one of Condé Nast’s Best New Hotels in the world. This success will ensure the continued viability of the superbly restored structure.

Project Impact

The project has been influential in inspiring similar conservation projects throughout the Old Town of Galle, both in terms of encouraging private individuals to acquire heritage properties as well as providing a model for noteworthy conservation practice. The conservation of the mansion has also been instrumental in training a new generation of local masons and other craftsmen in the traditional building arts. Many of these artisans have gone on to be involved in other conservation projects.

As a major local employer, the Galle Fort Hotel has had a significant positive impact upon the community. Furthermore, following the devastating tsunami of 2004 the Hotel served as the Central Command Post for the United States Marines involved with the relief effort, and later supplied food for the humanitarian relief workers who flooded into the area. As tourism slowly resumed, the hotel become an engine of recovery in the historic town.

Quote from the Project Team

“The building provided the training and experience for a new generation of masons, carpenters, painters and tilers to learn traditional building crafts and the hotel has become a reference point for many architects, builders and their clients.”