The first time Pooja Bihani entered the Belgadia Palace, it seemed to her that she beheldthe setup of an artsy magazine photoshootin front of her. Amidst areas in need of repair, was suspended an ancient chandelier, complemented by a white claw-foot bathtub against the backdrop of a peeling plaster wall. It was love at first sight for the architect.
After a year and a half of hard work, founder and Principal Architect of Spaces & Design, Pooja Bihani, converted the space into something not just magazine-worthy, but fit for royalty. Owned by the Bhanjdeo royal family of Baripada, the 23,500 square foot home is now a royal experiential boutique hotel.
Completed in February 2017, the brief for the project was to simply restore the old glory of the palace and update it with modern amenities. Bihani was also tasked with the challenge of maximising the number of rooms, while sparingly using new furniture. Taking it up a notch, Spaces & Designs eventually decided to not use any new furniture in the palace. Instead, they banked on re-polished and restored furniture present in the royal archives. They also utilised parts of the royal palaces of the family in Kolkata and Shillong.
The heritage property was constructed on the orders of Maharani Sumitra Devi Bhanj Deo in 1804, who ruled the state from 1796 to 1810. Constructed with brick in the classical Western style, the structure is adorned with Doric-Corinthian columns and is a mixture of Greek and Victorian architecture. The style of architecture gives guests a taste of the family’s rootswhich can be traced back to Nepal, Rajasthan and Odisha. Each room brings out a different style, and is painted in bright colours, giving it a unique look. The estate is situated on a hill, surrounded by orchards, groves, and is close to the Simlipal Tiger and Elephant Reserve.
Prior to the renovation, Bihani tells us that less than 40 per cent of the property was being utilised. She recalls, how, when the crew first opened the door to an unused wing of the property, a barrage of birds flew out. The floor was covered in pigeon droppings — and that is when she knew she had a lot of work in front of her.
Bihani started her research with identifying the structural status of the building. She explains that this is a crucial step in heritage sites, as they have survived many generations superimposing their changing needs on the building. A second generation may inherit and add an extra floor or board up an entrance. “Sometimes the third generation doesn’t even know what the first generation has done, leading to confusion about the original structure,” she says. In the Belgadia Palace, Bihani noticed the presence of extra mezzanine floors; these were built to house the royal treasury of antique furniture, crockery, lampshades and lights. The Bhanj Deo’s ancillary palace was taken over by the government to open a school, leading to a need for extra storage in the Belgadia Palace.
Bihani discusses a special challenge she faced while working on this project – getting skilled labour to work at the site due to the height of the ceiling and the distance from Kolkata. The palace’s ceiling touched 19 to 22 feet and required special scaffolding and wire for workers to get to that height. The scenic location of Baripada, about four hours away from Kolkata also proved to be deterrent in getting good labourers.
When asked about the primary consideration to bear in mind while working on a heritage project of this scale, Bihani stresses on the age-old formula of “less is more.” And further elaborates: “As an architect, the ability to withdraw and not overdo things is extremely important as you must match the elements of history and heritage.In a heritage property there is a limitation of creativity, as there is already a base, which an architect has to skilfully enhance.”
Another aspect of utmost importance is maintenance, as the properties must be updated to last. In the Belgadia palace, Spaces & Design used a large quantity of marble, stone and tiles to prevent the ‘rising damp’, which, as Bihani explains, is the seepage of moisture in the walls of an old building. New wood was also avoided to deter termites; in fact, the palace used the least number of plies, lower than any other project Bihani has worked on. “Sites with a long history require a copious amount of R&D—studying a range of architectural styles, replicating damaged décor to match the style of the time, researching the type of paint to be used, and how it was applied,” she explains.
The architect had some surprises waiting at the palace. While renovating her crew discovered ancient arches that originally opened into the veranda. These arches had probably been shut by aprevious generation of royals but were identified due to the difference in brick quality and slight discrepancies in construction.Bihani credits these discoveries for making the journey of renovating an old home even more exciting.
Fit for Royalty
The original design had 25 rooms, but the space was changed during the renovation to accommodate nine rooms, including luxury suites, conference spaces, an extended library, billiards and a theatre room, extended dining table, rooftop area, gym, spa, museum with additional verandas.
Timeless chequered black-and-white marbles, chandeliers, detailed mirror work, vintage tiles, vibrant colour schemes, claw-footed bathtubs, heirloom carpets added to the meticulous details ensconced in this heritage hotel. Royal Doulton sinks and taps were replaced by modern shower textures, and the old Lalique lights, and crystal chandeliers were substituted by energy-efficient options. A key feature in the palace is the walls carved with terracotta flowers. Gold leafing, miniature paintings and beautiful murals were restored in the old antique shops of Kolkata to replicate the character of the original estate.
After the Belgadia Palace, the firm has worked on many heritage properties. Bihani is set to unveil a bar at the iconic Royal Calcutta Golf Club. It is one of the oldest golf clubs in India as well as one of the finest in Asia. While working on the project, Bihani noticed fabulous arches which overlooked the golf course. However, the windows were only sill height, i.e., starting from about 3 feet from the floor. Wanting to make them floor to window, Bihani had to get approval of the Calcutta Heritage Committee, and when the committee members eventually came to take stock of the final product, they appreciated the imperial effect that came with the arches touching the floor. Other heritage projects included two office spaces; one of these is in the Dalhousie area of Calcutta, an old-world locale, populated by Colonial-era structures.
Bihani loves working on heritage properties; she is “intoxicated” by the stories the sites tell. As she puts it: “I love the conversation that the site has with you, it is something intangible, but it always tells me where I need to start.”
Bihani concludes our chat with a laugh saying, “I have recollected moments that I had almost erased from my memory, so thanks for that.” While working on the royal property, Bihani reminisces about the small things that she remembers—lunch would be served using fresh produce sourced from the garden, and the crew looked forward to each of thecarefully prepared dish. Calcutta is known for its paan, and Pooja would always pack an extra one for her journey back home.
What made this particular project so special to her was that it was Spaces & Design’s first heritage site. “It was a milestone project for the organisation and for me as a designer as well,” she says.