In Pictures: Colombo’s Colonial Heritage

Text by Dilina Amaruwan

Sri Lanka’s colonial history is not only written in books, but also in the country’s cityscapes. Among the many colonial legacies that we inherited, architecture is one to be particularly proud of. Especially in Colombo, the architecture styles of old are a welcome respite from cookie-cutter, glass-and-steel skyscrapers.

The Galle Face Hotel – Arguably the most famous colonial structure in Sri Lanka, the Galle Face hotel started out as a Dutch villa, and was later turned into a hotel by four British entrepreneurs in 1864. The fame of the hotel has been such that it has played host to an extensive list of global celebrities—Mahatma Gandhi, Yuri Gagarin, Jawaharlal Nehru, Noel Coward, and royalty from Denmark, Japan, and Britain are only some of the dignitaries that have walked these halls. You can read the complete list of the hotel’s distinguished guests engraved on a plaque in the Grand Lobby of the hotel.

The Grand Oriental Hotel – This hotel began its life as a simple, single-storey building that opened on to the street, but a Dutch governor called it home for some time. In 1837, the British Army converted it to a barracks and then again into an Army hostel. Governor Wilmot-Horton retained the services of architect J. G. Smither once again to convert the structure into a hotel. In its new avatar, the Grand Oriental Hotel opened on November 5, 1875, with 154 luxury and semi-luxury rooms. To this day, the Grand Oriental’s bar has one of the best views of the Colombo Harbour.


The Colombo National Museum – The iconic National Museum may not have existed had it not been for the Royal Asiatic Society. They impressed the importance of a public museum on then governor William Gregory. With great difficulty, approval was obtained, plans were drawn in the Italian style by architect J. G. Smither of the Public Works, and construction was carried out by an architect called Wapchi Marikar, who completed the structure in 1876. At the completion, governor Gregory asked Marikar what honour he wished as a reward. He asked that the museum be closed on Fridays, which is the Muslim sabbath. Hence, the museum has remained closed on Friday for many years.

The Dutch Burgher Union – The DBU occupies a beautiful edifice at the intersection of Havelock Road, Reid Avenue, and now Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Constructed in 1913, it was built specifically for the Union. Its most prominent feature is the step-gabled ends of its two wings. This feature is common to many ancient buildings in the Netherlands that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

Joseph Fraser Hospital – Joseph Fraser was one of Sri Lanka’s most respected planters, who introduced many innovative methods to the industry at the time. On his passing, his widow Chrissie was determined to build a suitable memorial for him, so she constructed a hospital for the planter community. She approached the Planters’ Association for assistance, and the hospital was completed in 1923.

Old Dutch Hospital – The Dutch Hospital falls in line with 17th-century Dutch architecture. A 50 cm wall and thick teak beams make for a sturdy structure. The layout is designed in such a way as to keep out the heat and the humidity. It’s considered to be the oldest building in Colombo; there are accounts of it dating back to 1681.

St. Lucia’s Cathedral – It is said that a small thatched hut was the first house of worship on the land that St. Lucia’s Cathedral now stands. That was around 1760. A larger brick and mortar church was built in 1782. By 1872, the church was in disrepair and plans for a new cathedral were put in motion. However, the construction faced numerous obstacles and was finally completed only in 1902. St. Lucia’s is considered the oldest and largest parish cathedral in Sri Lanka. The cathedral’s iconic neo-classical façade rests on massive ionic columns adorned with seven statues. Ornate, intricate statues are inside the church as well, with a unique, dark-skinned statue of the Madonna called ‘Our Lady of Kotahena’. The stained glass windows bring added beauty to the structure.

Cargills & Millers Building – The red Cargills & Millers building is a long-standing symbol of the Fort area. In 1844, businessmen David Cargill and William Miller embarked on a joint venture in Kandy. But after the coffee blight destroyed the economy upcountry, they shifted operations to Colombo, where they acquired the building now known as the Cargills & Millers Building. This brick-red structure, constructed in classical European architectural styles, was once the residence of Captain Pieter Sluysken, the former Dutch military commander of Galle. Cargill and Miller then turned it into Ceylon’s first high-end department store.

Old Town Hall – At the end of Main street in Pettah, you will find a building built in the Venetian Gothic style—this happens to be the Old Town Hall of Colombo. While the building could arguably be preserved better, you can still see the distinctive architecture if you visit. Although it used to be the Town Hall, the only thing remaining to indicate that is the creepy display of wooden dolls depicting a council meeting from 1906.

Colombo Fort Clock Tower – This iconic landmark is as centrally located as you can get. The clock tower is Kilometre Zero for Sri Lanka. All distances from Colombo are measured with the clock tower as the starting point. It’s also near the President’s House, and is also located right next to the Central Bank. After the Central Bank bombing in 1996, this entire area became a high-security zone and no one could visit the tower. It wasn’t until 2015 that the roads were reopened and the public could once again see the clock tower up close. It was designed by Emily Elizabeth Ward, wife of then Governor Henry Ward, and constructed by the Public Works Department. Back when it was constructed in 1857, it was the tallest structure in Colombo. The first clock mechanism was built by Dent clockmakers, the same clockmakers behind Big Ben in London. However, it had to be replaced in 1913 with the clock you see today. The tower originally also served as a lighthouse— its kerosene lantern was visible 17 miles out to sea. The kerosene lantern was converted to gas in 1907 and then replaced with a 1,500 candlepower electric light in 1933. The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1952 after buildings started to block its view.

Featured image: Joseph Fraser Hospital

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