Once a cornerstone of heritage, Hotel Metropole in search of new identity

Updated October 02, 2019

Email

THE hotel’s basic structure still stands tall against the sprawling gardens where people used to host tea parties and musical soirees.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
THE hotel’s basic structure still stands tall against the sprawling gardens where people used to host tea parties and musical soirees.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: The Sindh government decided last month that it would buy the city’s historic Metropole Hotel from billionaire Habibullah Khan, who bought the property last year, and turn it into a park for children and the elderly.

The hotel, which was inaugurated by the Shah of Iran in 1951, has been a cornerstone of Karachi’s heritage lined with international airline offices on the ground floor, including PanAm, KLM and others. It was also home to the city’s first Discotheque, the nightclub Samar, where cabaret shows and jazz nights with legendary musicians, such as Dizzie Gillespie, were held.

The history

“My grandfather, Cyrus Minwalla, decided in 1949 that Karachi needed a hotel and he together with the Dinshaw family — which owned a bunch of houses where the Metropole is now located — made a plan. The Dinshaw family gave him the land on a 15-year lease and told him to go ahead and build the property,” said Mr Minwalla’s grandson, Feroze Jamall.

While talking to Dawn, he explained that construction on the property started in 1949 and it opened…fully, in 1954.

“There was a soft opening in 1951 but the complete structure was finished in 1954. From then till 1965 there was the Metropole, the Beach Luxury and we had another hotel in Malir called the Grande. Of course, there was also Palace and all these other properties. But the Metropole was the newest player on the block in those days,” he said.

Sindh govt plans to purchase the property and turn it into a park

“After 1965 when the Intercontinental opened, our occupancy started going down. Unfortunately, my grandfather died in 1967 and the family neglected the property. Then the 1971 war happened, which caused further strain and at that time we converted half the building into offices because we needed the income,” he added.

What sustained the Metropole till it was shut down, according to Mr Jamall, was the airline crew that used to stay there.

“Lufthansa, Swiss Air and Condor’s crew used to stay here. They had dedicated floors. For example, the entire fourth floor was just for airlines crew. No one else could use those rooms. They also had their own restaurant and kitchen,” he said, adding, that lasted till 1998 when we went nuclear.

Soon after, he explained, Lufthansa stopped flying to Pakistan as did Swiss Air. “In those days, after 9/11 the industry had taken a downturn. So in October 2004, the family decided to close the property down and soon after we started the demolition,” he said, adding that they were planning to redevelop it themselves but gave up on that idea in 2006/7.

By this time, half of the property had been demolished.

Mr Jamall, who ran the hotel from 1992 till 2004, has fond memories of the property.

“My wife and I had an apartment there. It was our first home. Since I was running it, we were living there too. My wife and her friend renovated the Four Seasons Chinese restaurant (which used to be the Samar). It was one of the nightclubs that reopened after Zia,” he said.

“In those days people were open to the idea. I think we opened around 1997/8. It was open once a week, on Fridays and it was rocking for the first two years,” he added.

Talking about the new owners of the property, Mr Jamall said: “The new owner’s vision will really do justice to the site. They want to bring in a high-level luxury hotel…they are talking to the Fairmont and the Four Seasons.”

Future plans

According to Mr Khan’s company Mega Conglomerate, they want to create an ‘A’ grade international standard self-functioning city within the city in the form of a mixed-use development through an iconic design by one of the world’s foremost architectural firms based out of Japan.

In an email to Dawn, a representative of the company said: “Our plan for this new mixed-use facility is to incorporate a luxury six-star globally recognised hotel, exclusive office space, ultra-high-end residential apartments and extensive parking all linked through upscale retail delivering a very high-quality end product.

“The project will also feature a museum dedicated to contemporary art and focus on walkability as users of the property will be given a live-work-dine experience; as is the case with such projects all over the world. It is important to mention that the plan in no way violates any current building regulations for the site and we have conducted a three-month traffic impact study creating long-term permanent traffic solutions in and around the site.

“As a group we are well cognizant of the requirement for such a district in a city that is continuing to grow and hope to build something iconic adding to the cityscape of Karachi without detracting from the site’s or the city’s vast heritage.”

The government’s input

According to Murtaza Wahab, an adviser to Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, the government had discussed the possibility of turning the property into a park but nothing was set in stone.

Talking to Dawn, Mr Wahab said that the property currently belongs to a private individual. “Naturally if the Sindh government wants to build a park or city centre, it cannot be done till we acquire the property. There is a procedure we have to follow and whoever owns the property has the right to object. The government has certain limitations,” he said.

“The possibility for a park was considered and is under discussion. We need to fight climate change. To mitigate these circumstances we need to plant more trees and have more parks. The chief minister is in favour of developing more parks — the benchmark of his vision is Jahangir Park,” he added.

Talking to Dawn about his vision for the property, architect Shahid Abdualla said that the area would benefit if the property was razed to the ground and replaced with a piazza, mall and parking lot or bus depot similar to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York.

Old memories

In the 60s and 70s, Metropole was the place to be. According to Mr Jamall, from the Queen of England to the Shah of Iran, the Aga Khan and the Nawab of Bhawalpur, they all used to have suites there. We had cabarets too,” he said.

Marzyeh Kanga, fondly known as Marzi, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated cabaret dancers, told Dawn about her time at the Metropole.

“The hotel catered to the rich gentry. There was the Samar nightclub, the Discotheque, the laws were used for tea parties and get-togethers. There was the Shalimar restaurant which served Parsi food on Sundays and Bristo Café too. We used to have our Navjote ceremonies here too,” she said.

“The city’s first salon was also here. Madame Noor Jehan and Shamim Ara used to go there for their hair and make-up. There was also Charlie’s hairdresser on the ground floor,” she added.

Zaheer Kidwai remembers going to the hotel several times as a young child.

“I remember the first time I went there was for Amy Minwalla’s Christmas parties — where she performed in a ballet. She was just a kid herself then,” he said.

Businesswoman Kanwal said she vividly remembered the walls of the Four Seasons. “We used to go there with the family for Thursday night dinner. We would park across the road and walk down the huge foyer to the restaurant,” she added.

Graphic designer Sohail Zuberi shared that he still has his father’s autograph book which has celebrity signatures given at tea parties held at the hotel.

Published in Dawn, October 2nd , 2019