An architectural marvel reminiscent of times gone by
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Colombo Fort is arguably the busiest commercial trade zone in the Western Province, and amidst all the hustle and bustle lies some of the oldest structures in the city.
With its tropical colonial-era architecture, the Old Dutch Hospital is one of those structures. With its dual courtyards, red clay roof tiles, and half-a-metre thick walls featuring massive teak beams and long open verandas, it’s truly an architectural marvel reminiscent of times gone by.
We are all quite familiar with the general history of the Old Dutch Hospital, but to quickly recap – in the late 1600s it was built as a hospital to serve Dutch seafarers due to its convenient location near the harbour. Following Sri Lanka’s independence from the British, the building was turned into the Colombo Fort Police Station in the 1980s.
Having sustained damage during the civil war, during the height of the implementation of post-war development projects around 2011, the Old Dutch Hospital, with its historical architecture, was presented to the officials in the Urban Development Authority (UDA) as a building that should be restored. The UDA, together with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his bid to rebuild Colombo, then proceeded to repurpose the building.
Murad Ismail, the Chartered Architect who was working on the project together with the Defence Secretary at the time, spoke to The Sunday Morning Brunch about the approach adopted in reconditioning the Old Dutch Hospital.
He said that when they first looked at working on the building, they decided that simply restoring it would not suffice as doing that would result in excessive maintenance and the premises would simply become decapitated again.
Therefore, the initial idea was to transform it into a singular hotel, but that idea was also scrapped as the team concluded that it would be only the guests of the hotel who could enjoy its beauty and experience its history. Further, as the team was tasked with rebuilding of Colombo, they realised that there weren’t many places in Colombo which the general public, including young people and families, could simply gather and spend time away from home. “So the final idea was to renovate it into something that was akin to a park,” Ismail said.
He explained that as the inspiration behind the idea of including vendors, saying: “What we wanted was to have tenants who sold knick-knacks, and fast/street food, so that people would come to the venue to gather and as they browsed, maybe purchase some of these small items.”
When asked about the nature of the vendors, and how, even though it is a place open to the general public, the average price point is on the upper end of the spectrum, he responded: “While there are items available at the high-end market price points right now, the original idea was to make it affordable to the general public. That being said, even some vendors there do sell small items that people can buy simply because they catch your eye.”
He revealed that the rent rates were set quite low at the initial stages, low enough that “you or I could have taken up a spot”. He explained that the amount was decided on square-foot basis, and that it was “really affordable” at the time. However, Ismail is uncertain of the current rates.
Ministry of Crab and Next Innings – Dharshana Munidasa
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to Dharshana Munidasa, a household name responsible for guiding Sri Lanka’s culinary efforts on a global scale, who said that the Old Dutch Hospital is a success in that it has come together in an unexpected fashion.
He shared that the tenants all share a common goal and have the same level of understanding, saying: “The tenants are on the same page – it’s evident in proceedings similar to the remembrance event we organised. We have found the correct frequency to thrive as a collective.”
Taphouse by RnR – Ranganiy Hettiarachchi
Ranganiy Hettiarachchi is the owner of the famous RnR, which initially started in association with Lion Breweries. RnR is now her sole operation, and they also have an outlet in Galle. Ranganiy spoke of how, as a female bar owner, she is proud of what she’s accomplished, and that Taphouse has remained a place people come to not only on Fridays or Saturdays, designated as days to go out, but also other days of the week to relax and unwind.
She said: “This is really what I wanted. The Old Dutch Hospital building was constructed for this very purpose of gathering and hanging out, for people to spend their time, even the whole day,” adding: “I am surprised and humbled by the success it has gotten, and I am glad that it has grown to be a place where people meet, and we’ve even had occasions where people have proposed to their partners. The music the courtyard features has proved to be a wonderful attraction where many couples looking to get married come to find a good band for their wedding. I am honoured to be a part of people’s lives in such a way.”
Harpo’s-owned Colombo Fort Café – Harpo Gooneratne
We spoke to Harpo about the chain’s involvement in the Old Dutch Hospital building, and he spoke about how the former Defence Secretary approached many recognisable names in the F&B industry at the time, including him, saying: “When we were approached, we said yes, because it proved to be a great opportunity to be a part of Colombo’s social and cultural fabric.”
When we inquired about the rather contrasting elements in the building; considering how it was intended for the purpose of hosting the general public, but that many high-end vendors had taken over the space, he said: “I think the vendors really complement one another, because in one corner you have Ministry of Crab and then you have chilled out places like Taphouse. I think the venue has struck a good balance in its offerings.”
Spa Ceylon – Shalin Balasuriya
Shalin spoke of the brands that have come together to form the tenants collective at the Dutch, and he went on to say that out of all of the UDA projects this building contains the most active tenant base, dedicated to creating brands and particularly in furthering the brand that is Dutch Hospital.
“I am amongst amazing company, truly significant brands; there are local brands that have gone international, all those involved bringing an intense passion for the space and Sri Lanka, “there’s truly a space like no other when it comes to this group of professionals that have come together to form what is the Dutch Hospital right now.”
The Old Dutch Hospital is a remnant of Sri Lanka’s rich history, its high pillars and open concept a vision and bequest to the future.
The building has more right to the city of Colombo than any person alive. It has been a marvel for Colombo’s hospitality industry and one should be truly grateful for the service it provides in being a welcome space for everyone.