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 Post subject: Mount Lavinia - The Governor’s Palace
 Post Posted: Sun Sep 24, 2006 2:41 pm 
Mount Lavinia- The Governor’s Palace by Shevanthie Goonesekera

Photographed by Eshan Goonesekera and Sarath Nanayakkara.
Published by Paradise Isle Publications, London.
Price:Rs 8,050.
Available at Barefoot,Odel and Mount Lavinia Hotel

By Renuka Sadanandan
@ ST / 24Sep2006

When a hotel has the good fortune to be a place of heritage and history, inextricably linked with its country, then it makes sense to record that history before records vanish into oblivion. This meticulously researched account of the Mount Lavinia Hotel’s grand past takes the reader through its 200-year saga, first its days of glory as a Governor’s residence, then its passage through different hands before becoming known as one of the country’s landmark hotels.

Mount Lavinia, Andrew Nicholl 1847

The legend of Lovina, the sultry half Portuguese, half Sinhalese mestizo dancer who captivated British Governor Sir Thomas Maitland has been made much of in the celebrations related to the hotel’s bicentennial but rest assured, Lovina is only a small part of this book.

The story begins with Maitland, the military general who took office as the second British Governor and finding no accommodation suitable to his exalted state, chose a windswept promontory overlooking the sea in the village of Galkissa for his Governor’s mansion.

It was here that ‘King Tom’ (as Maitland was known) and Lovina’s clandestine romance flourished “in secret away from the disapproving eyes of the English society in Colombo and the moral imperatives of such a closed community”, the book states.

The book goes into great detail of how the house came to be built and rebuilt and Maitland’s letters to the Colonial Secretary and subsequent correspondence between Governor Edward Barnes and the British authorities make interesting reading.

The earliest description of the house comes from Sir James Mackintosh, a friend of the Governor who wrote in 1810 that it was “a bungalow of one storey, rustic on the outside, but handsomely laid out, and furnished beautifully”.

After Maitland’s time, came Sir Robert Brownrigg who recommended a further purchase of the surrounding land, 35 acres from 14 landowners for 18,000 Rix dollars. Brownrigg inferred that some future Governor may need the accommodation. It was here too that Brownrigg met a distraught Ehelepola who came to the gates of the mansion on hearing of the brutal execution of his wife and young children in Kandy.

Fourteen years after its construction, the house had fallen into disrepair and it fell to Governor Sir Edward Paget to save it from destruction, writing to the Colonial Secretary to have it repaired. It was then left to Edward Barnes returning to the island for a second term as Governor to push the case. The book states “Barnes set to work on his grand plans. Mount Lavinia was to be his ultimate creation; a magnificent residence fit for the Grand Master, such as Versailles was to Louis XIV”.

The book records how the British military engineers redesigned the house on the lines of an Italian villa. It was Capt. Edward Sanderson of the Royal Engineers who was the designer and master builder under Barnes’ watchful eye. The book suggests that it was modelled on the ‘Banqueting House’ in Whitehall, a creation of famous architect Inigo Jones, also known as the ‘English Palace’. The Banqueting House was refurbished by architect Sir John Soane. “Not only does the date of the refacing of the Banqueting House coincide perfectly with the building of Mount Lavinia but a marked similarity in style is also apparent between the two buildings. Inigo Jones had used the Ionic and Corinthian orders, the height of urban sophistication. At Mount Lavinia, which offered a country setting, albeit an exotic one, Captain Edward Sanderson used the simpler Doric order and superimposed the Ionic. This pattern had been used by Palladio in building his Plazzo Chiericati in Vicenza, in Italy”, according to the book.

Devoting entire chapters to its architecture, furnishings and even the building materials used, the author reveals interesting snippets, how the exterior and interior walls were coated with a simple mixture of chunam, eggs and molasses, to give it a highly polished marble-like texture. The main timbers used in the house were satinwood, nadun, dell and ironwood, “only the most durable of woods were to be used on Barnes’ orders, for he stipulated that there should not be any call on Government for fifty years to come”.

By 1830, Barnes’ grand residence was ready, complete with military quarters and barracks as well as a coach house for carriage horses. The book refers to his grand plan to create a marine drive from Galle Face to his house and also to the lavish parties the Governor and his lady hosted with accounts by many travellers giving the reader glimpses of the opulent lifestyle of this era.

But it was to end all too soon. Sir Robert Horton who succeeded Barnes did not reside at Mount Lavinia and it was proposed that the house be disposed of. And so as Emerson Tennent put it, “the edifice at Mount Lavinia had scarcely been completed at an expense estimated at pounds 30,000 when it was ordered to be dismantled, and the building disposed of for less than the cost of the window frames”.

The house then passed into private hands in 1842 with Rev. Dr. John MacVicar, the Colonial Chaplain purchasing it and entertaining many famous people including the artist Andrew Nicholl there, but in 1845 it was up for auction again. It seems there were no takers and in 1847 Viscount Torrington proposed that the government buy it for use as a sanatorium. But this was not to be and the house passed once again to another private owner William Dallas Bernard, Torrington’s private secretary in 1854.

After further changes in ownership, ‘The Mount Lavinia Hotel Company Ltd’ was established in 1898. By then the railtrack had been built on the seacoast and with Colombo becoming the island’s main port of call, many were the visitors to Mount Lavinia. The Hotel’s fish tiffin became well known and its many attractions were hailed by visitors like Bella Woolf, the sister of Leonard Woolf.

Postcards and advertisements are well presented in the pages that follow. It is interesting to note that in the 1920’s the rates were five rupees for a single room and ten for a double, depending on the size and location of the rooms; seaviews cost more.

In 1927, the hotel was sold to Arthur Ephraums and managed by Cargills and Co. It was in this era that it became popular as a film location and the book records how it figured in the Bridge on the River Kwai (where it was a military hospital).

On to contemporary times, it was bought again by Razeen Salih and Farook Sally in 1969 and in July 1975 by U.K. Edmund. After his death, the property passed to the Ukwatte family; his son Sanath Ukwatte is the present Chairman of the Hotel.

The book concludes with some theories about how Mount Lavinia got its name; was it after Maitland’s lady friend (the dancer Lovina), was it Lihiniya-gala anglicized or named after the plant Lavenia?

Much research has gone into the book and the author can only be complimented for providing such a clear and vivid picture and indeed a meticulous historical record of the changing fortunes of one of the grand mansions of the country. Beautifully presented, the book is of value too for the many illustrations and sketches.

The little photographs at the top of each page, however, did not enhance the design, in this reviewer’s eye, as they may have been better served by being presented bigger and better displayed but this is not to take away from a well presented edition which is a fitting tribute to the hotel’s bicentennial.

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