Newspapers of Chennai and social media have been abuzz over the last fortnight – the iconic Crowne Plaza Hotel, formerly Park Sheraton Hotel & Towers is up for sale. The owners of the property, namely the Goyal family, it was said had signed a deal with Ceebros – the city-based real estate development company. Reacting to the story, that latter did concede that it was interested and also said that if the deal went through it would bring down the hotel and promote the space as real estate. The Goyals denied that there was any such move. Those with ears to the ground however confirm that the sale deed has already been signed. And with that, one of the oldest properties in the city changes hands once more.
The story begins in John DeMonte, the Portuguese merchant prince who owned extensive parcels of land by the Adyar river. Arriving in the early 19th century in Madras via Pondicherry, DeMonte was successful in business and by 1808 had joined the firm of Latour, Arbuthnot & Co. When the senior partner retired in 1810, DeMonte was drafted in his place and the company became Arbuthnot, DeMonte & Co, which in turn became Arbuthnot & Co when DeMonteeventually retired. Hugely wealthy, DeMonte acquired the 105-acre Mowbray’s Garden which stretched between the Adyar River, Chamier’s Road, Greenway’s Road and thereafter to what was then back of beyond, but which is now Gandhi Mandapam Road. Nestling inside this premises was Mowbray’s Cupola – George Mowbray’s weekend retreat by the river and taking its name from a dominant architectural tower. But all of this brought DeMonte little happiness – his wife was mentally ill and had to be sequestered at Covelongand his only son died under mysterious circumstances in Germany in 1816.. DeMonte himself died in 1821.
His vast property was willed to the Catholic Church (the Diocese of Mylapore) with express instructions that it shouldnot be divided or sold. But that was hardly a practical proposition and by the late 19th century, the Church was keen to develop the property. The High Court of Madras was approached for permission and with that, much of the land along the Adyar river was parcelled off to be developed as huge garden bungalows – many of them owned by the pickle and condiments baron P Venkatachellum. These were occupied by senior civil servants, judges and leading merchants of the city, all of European origin. The houses were given names of villages in the United Kingdom. Not all the land was sold – some of it was leased and among these was Mowbray’s Cupola and surrounding space of 105 acres. This in 1890 became the premises of the Adyar Club, a whites-only institution. This parcel of land, which included an 18-hole golf course comprised what is presently the Boat Club area, Madras Club and also the land occupied by the US Consul General’s residence, River House. The entrance to the Club was from Chamiers Road and referred to as the Adyar Club Gate. In the 1890s when the Mercantile Bank, one of the oldest such institutions of the city and now the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation purchased a part of DeMonte’s property opposite the Adyar Club gate, it gave its premises the name Adyar Gate. A colonial style bungalow was constructed on the land and became the residence of the manager of the bank.
By the late 1940s, other British business establishments, which had hitherto housed their executives in Nungambakkam and the Cathedral areas, began to eye the Adyar river area as a suitable option for residences. Binny was the pioneer – its Directors had till then been occupying six bungalows in Poe’s Gardens in Teynampet.
When approached, the Church was more than willing to sell. With permission from the Court having been obtained, parts of the 105 acres leased to the Adyar Club were offered on sale. The Club itself was not doing well enough to consider purchasing the whole space for itself, the Second World War and Independence had reduced its membership. Thus around 40 acres were sold to Adyar Property Holdings Pvt Ltd – a consortium put together by British companies in the city. Itthen developed the Boat Club area as housing for senior executives. The rest of the land was sold to private developers and also the US consulate. The Adyar Club itself purchased nine acres – its golf course vanishing for good. By 1962, it was almost impossible for two whites-only clubs to exist in the city and so the older Madras Club, operating from the Mount Road area, merged the Adyar Club into itself and shifted in to Mowbray’s Cupola. The iconic structure remains the main club building even now.
The Mercantile Bank had in the meanwhile developed the garden of Adyar Gate into a set of residences for its senior officers, the old bungalow being in the middle. In 1970, the bank decided to sell off 1 ½ acres of the property, with the old bungalow on it. This was when TT Vasu, scion of the TTK Group became interested. A very dynamic and colourful personality in the corporate and arts worlds of Madras, Vasu was more of a visionary than a nitty-gritty man and long before others had thought of it, he had, even in the 1960s, felt the need for a five-star hotel in the city. Madras was then very much a backwater with few upmarket hotels in it. The Connemara was plodding along and its distant rivals such as the Oceanic and the Ambassador had closed by the 1960s. Others such as the Taj Coromandel was not even an idea at that time and yet Vasu dreamt big. Rather coincidentally, acouple of Singapore-based Chettiars too felt the same and they had approached Holiday Inn with an idea to collaborate. Vasu was a Director on the Board of Holiday Inn. The Chettiars and Vasu decided to tie up and in 1970, the Adyar Gate Hotel Co Limited was incorporated. The Chettiars were to finance the construction and Vasu contributed the property as his investment. He also did all the groundwork for obtaining the necessary permissions.
By 1981, the old bungalow had been pulled down and work began. A hotel project is typically a long-drawn affair and somewhere along the way, the Chettiars lost interest. They felt that they were only pumping money with no end in sight. Conveniently forgotten was the amount of hard work Vasu was continuing to put into the project. They decided to withdraw, and Vasu had to settle with them, for which he dug into the resources of the TTK Group. This did not meet with the approval of his brothers and also most importantly of Padma Narasimhan, his formidable eldest sister-in-law who was by then taking a close look at the affairs of the TTK Group.
Though TTK’s rather reluctantly pumped in Rs 2 crores, this was clearly not enough, and Vasu had to borrow heavily in the open market. Eventually, OP Goyal, who was a successful garment exporter took interest in the project and brought in the necessary capital. Though Vasu was retained at the Chairman of Adyar Gate Hotels, control eventually passed into the hands of the Goyals, rather to the distress of the TTK Group which evidently expected some significant shareholding for the work that Vasu had put in and the money that they had brought when the going was tough. Vasu however still was very passionate about the hotel and it was his contacts that brought in ITC’s Welcomgroup in 1985 to manage the place. In 1988, Welcomgroup tied up with Sheraton and the hotel became Park Sheraton Hotel & Towers by which name it is still spoken of. One of the major draws at the hotel was the restaurant Dakshin, which specialised in South Indian cuisine – yet again a Vasu idea. And within it, an icon was Parameswara Iyer – who had once been a cook in the TTK household. Vasu brought him into the hotel and had him wheel the appetiser cart at Dakshin and more importantly, offer degree coffee by the yard. It was a sight to see foreigners and North Indians gape open-mouthed as Iyer mixed the coffee and then lifted the tumbler a full yard above the davaraand poured forth the fragrant liquid, not a drop spilling anywhere. That alone was worth the price of entry. Another attraction, long after Vasu had left the scene, was Dublin – the Irish pub-styled discotheque. Park Sheraton was also the place where cricketers came to stay and it was a familiar sight to see traffic being blocked each time the sports icons left for their practice sessions and matches.
The Goyals remained low-profile owners of the place and very few patrons realised that the long driveway by the side of the hotel led to their private residence. In 2015, the Goyalsopted to sign a management agreement with the Intercontinental Hotels Group and the hotel was renamed Crowne Plaza, with not many in the city realising that the ‘e’ was silent. Crowny Plaza it became to the autorickshaw drivers in particular. But clearly the old Welcomgroupglamour was missing and let us face it, there were a lot more hotels in the city by then. The pandemic of 2020 created further trouble and it is most likely that this is what prompted the Goyals to sell. There are rumours afloat of huge arrears in property taxes that need to be paid – the Corporation had actually announced this by means of drumbeat outside the premises, much to the embarrassment of the owners. The Goyals now claim that all dues have been settled.
If the purchase by Ceebros goes through, it will mean a new chapter to be written in the history of a property that goes back to the time of George Mowbray and John DeMonte. And of course, Dakshin will be missed.
This article owes much to the writings of the late S Muthiah, in particular his book TT Vasu, the man who could not say no.
This article is part of a series I write on lost and surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here
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