Located in the heart of the business district overlooking the harbour, Grand Oriental Hotel is housed in a colonial-style building, originally a mansion of a Dutch Governor and military barracks.
The Grand Oriental Hotel site has an interesting past. With Governor Frederick North taking over the British administration in 1802, it had been occupied by General Macdowall, Commander of the armed forces. The site owned by the Government had been sold in the early 1870s when the military buildings were gradually moved out of Fort. It was bought by the Ceylon Hotels Company, which soon had a chain of hotels including the GOH, Mount Lavinia Hotel and Queen’s Hotel in Kandy.
The plans of a new hotel came into being in 1870 through the works of architect R. Smith, under the patronage of then governor Robert Wilmot Horton. And on the 5th of November 1875, the hotel was christened the ‘Grand Oriental Hotel’.
With acknowledgements from around the world, being the latest ‘modern’ hotel at the time in the east, shares of the hotel were in great demand on its public offering. It held 154 luxury and semi-luxury rooms, electric lights and fans. The hotel’s cutlery and chairs had the impressive GOH logo imprinted. Managed by experienced Europeans, it was the only fully European owned and fully equipped hotel in the east.
GOH was popular both among the overseas and internal travellers. With the plantations gradually opening up, the British businessmen were frequent visitors. With Colombo becoming a commercial centre, entrepreneurs showed interest in opening offices of their companies. There was constant movement which created a need for lodgings.
Billiards being very popular at the time, the hotel had four billiard tables – helping it to score a point above the others which did not have any. This facility helped to attract the more affluent travellers as well as the richer community in Colombo.
The hotel gave opportunity for ardent fans of the British Royals and other dignitaries to view their passing of the harbour. The rooftop offered the perfect place for a sun bath and the garden a place to chat and rest while listening to the well known band – Blue Star. Famous guests at the time that came by the GOH include HRM Queen Elizabeth and the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
The Grand Oriental Hotel (or GOH as it is familiarly known far and wide) was the first of the modern type of imposing hotels erected in the East. With its towering front facing the harbour and the shipping and its main portico separated by only a few yards from the principle landing stage, it occupies both a commanding and convenient position; and passengers by the mail steamers who are passing through the port are especially catered for at this establishment in the very best style…The building contains 154 bedrooms…The hotel is lighted throughout by electricity and all the public rooms and bedrooms are kept cool by means of electric fans.A review published in 1907
With the increasing demand, extensions to the building had been done in 1881 and the hotel had been virtually rebuilt a few years later spending over Rs. 2 million, which was considered the most expensive hotel project at the time.
A famous architects’ firm in Bombay (now Mumbai), Stevenson and Gregson had done the architectural and structural designs in great detail, running to over 500 drawings. Ralph Macdonald & Company were the contractors. The new five-storeyed building had 250 bedrooms.
In 1954, the property of Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo, was handed over to the Bank of Ceylon following negotiations for a price of Rs. 6,250,000. A full team, led by Mr. Ediriweera took over the management of the hotel. And the scope of facilities were reduced.
Following strategic decisions in 1963, the company name changed from Colombo Hotels Company to Hotels Colombo Ltd. However, due to legal constraints the Bank of Ceylon could not use the name Grand Oriental Hotel and they renamed the hotel as the Taprobane Hotel.
In 1966 Geoffrey Bawa was appointed to remodel the hotel, creating the Harbour Room, a restaurant on the fourth floor directly overlooking the Colombo Harbour. During this period the hotel’s originality was restored and the country’s first night club, the Blue Leopard, located in the basement of the hotel opened. The total cost of the refurbishment was approximately Rs. 1.9 million. In 1989 the hotel reverted to its original name, the Grand Oriental Hotel, re-opening in June 1991.
As the years went by, international hotel chains from Intercontinental to Hilton opened hotels with modern, better facilities and GOH was no longer a much-sought-after hotel. A night club was opened, which was soon to become popular, particularly with the more affluent youngsters. The executives in Colombo offices picked GOH as a convenient spot for lunch due to close proximity to their workplaces.
The hotel has 80 rooms and two suites. The suites are named after two famous personalities who stayed here, Dr José Rizal, who stayed in May 1882. And Anton Chekhov, who stayed at the hotel in 1890 for five days, during which time he started writing Gusev.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, widely known as José Rizal , was a Filipino nationalist and polymath during the tail end of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines.
It has two restaurants, the Harbour Room and the Sri Lankan Restaurant, a nightclub (B-52), a bar (Tap Bar) and a cafe (Tiffin Hut).
Today the Grand Oriental Hotel is among the cherished buildings in the city. It continues its service using the slogan ‘A Legend Yet Living’.