01 Feb A new life for Fort Colombo heritage buildings; meet the entrepreneurs who make it happen
Fort Colombo is the heart and soul of Colombo. The city’s centuries-old powerhouse with a long and proud tradition of trade. This is where history was made in the past and where it’s made once again. The historic centre around the presidential palace that was off-limits for a long time, is now undergoing a facelift, bringing back Fort’s vivacity and old grandeur. Run-down colonial buildings get a fresh coat of paint and new café’s and shops open along the cobblestoned streets. We meet two entrepreneurs that are part of this make-over: Rukshan from The Re.Pub.Lk and Brindha from Hatch. Fort is their location of choice, from where they’re driving the revival of Colombo’s #01 historic hotspot.
Rukshan Meegahage . co-founder The Re.Pub.Lk @ Hospital Street
When we saw the place, we immediately felt the potential, says Rukshan Meegahage, one of the founders of Re.Pub.Lk
“Most of our neighbours like that we revamped the property and brought something new to the area” – Rukshan
Wood, steel and bricks
The solid wooden door is so heavy, we know we must be in for something special. When it finally opens, we’re not disappointed. We find ourselves in a large space with exposed brick walls, original steel beams and a long wooden bar with tinkling glasses. We’re in Hospital Street in what used to be an old, run-down bar for port workers with a slightly dodgy reputation, which has recently reopened as a cosy club for the Fort office crowd. ‘When we took it over, the bar had just closed down. The building was in a dilapidated state, the whole ground floor was flooded because of leaks and there were rats everywhere. But when we saw the place, we immediately felt the potential, we liked the location in a charming pedestrian street right in the middle of the main business district of Colombo.’ says Rukshan Meegahage, who started Re.Pub.Lk together with his friend Kumara.
During the renovation, they kept the original brick walls and wooden beams of the old warehouse intact
Keeping heritage alive
‘I was inspired by the underground, cosy whiskey bars I used to go to when I lived in Sydney. Kumara and I were gym buddies and his dad is in the liquor trade, which is how our idea began. We wanted an elegant bar with a relaxed vibe and a good price point for Colombo’s young, urban professionals.’ It seems Rukshan and Kumara hit the right note with their concept, it’s a weekday when we’re visiting and it’s buzzing. This is not a ‘beer by the bucket’ type of bar, the place has style while keeping a casual atmosphere. ‘We kept the outside façade and the doors the same. They date back to 1924. We also kept the old brick walls intact. There is an element of surprise when our customers walk in, the old characteristics add a hidden mysterious feel.’
Rukshan is happy to see the recent revival of Fort area. ‘Before this whole area used to be cordoned off and you couldn’t even enter it. Now it is like Fort is playing catch up. It has changed drastically over the last two years. A lot of small businesses are moving out and a lot of food and beverage places are popping up. Most of our neighbours like that we revamped the property and brought something new to the area. My hope for the future is that Fort becomes a destination people come to relax and unwind but that it retains its character with the traditional shops. They are important for the vibe of the area.‘
Re.Pub.Lik is in a building that dates back to 1924
The refurbishment of the Dutch Hospital has given Hospital Street a boost as a nightlife destination
“My hope is that Fort becomes a destination where people come to relax and unwind but that it retains its character with the traditional shops. They are important for the vibe of the area” – Rukshan
Brindha Selvadurai . head of community @ Hatch Co-Working . Sir Baron Jayathilaka Mawatha
Prince Street in Colombo Fort in the early 20th century, the bank buildings are on your right. Image: National Archives
Memories of Prince Street
In the old days, Prince Street was the city’s most prominent boulevard and home to the big financial powerhouses. Now the street has been renamed Sir Baron Jayathilaka Mawatha, but is still one of Fort’s most prestigious addresses. Walk here and you feel the grandeur of the early 20th century when ladies carried umbrellas to go shopping at the candy-striped Cargill’s Building, the city’s most luxurious department store and shipping clerks rushed to the Telegraph Office to process the orders of the spice traders. Those days may be long gone but the monumental buildings keep the memories alive. Here in the old Prince Street, the HSBC and Bank of India still occupy the same building that they first built in 1923, a time when a covered street level arcade was a mandatory requirement for all buildings to shield people from the sun and rain. In a unique and unprecedented configuration, the two banks shared one monumental building, built by Walker & Adams Architects in a typical mix of neo-classical and Palladian style.
“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings” – Jane Jacobs
Chatting to Brindha about Hatch’s objective to build the new entrepreneurial eco-system in Colombo
The treehouse provides an inspirational break-out space
A new home for Colombo’s young entrepreneurs
Next to these two Fort landmarks, you find an equally grand building still partly clad in scaffolding. This used to be Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment (BOI) and it has now been turned into a cool café, co-working and makers space. Hatch taps into the rapidly growing start-up ecosystem in the country’s capital city. The generous footprint of the building allows them to scale: ‘Here we can bring up to 900 of the city’s young entrepreneurs under one roof, to become the centre of gravity for all things start-up in the city’ says Brindha Selvadurai, head of community for the newly established venture. Hatch is more than just providing space, they’re about building a community in an environment where their entrepreneurs can grow through accelerator and incubator programmes.
Hatch is an initiative of the same people who created Orion City, Colombo’s first IT park. The success of the million square foot park in Colombo 09, thought them a thing or two about the needs of Colombo’s new entrepreneurial generation and that’s when they decided to help build a new ecosystem in the historic heart of town. Currently the Hatch tenant mix is quite tech-focused, but going forward they hope to bring in more creative, culinary and artistic entrepreneurs. ‘The building lends itself so well to multi-disciplinary use. It’s like a great canvas’ says Brindha.
“We didn’t find the building, the building found us” – Brindha Selvadurai
We touched very little so you can see what was here before, the character of the building
Reliving the grandeur from the past, the grand staircase and imposing lobby
New ideas in an old building
Wasn’t it the great Jane Jacobs who said: ‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings, but new ideas must use old buildings.’ Brindha agrees ‘This space is perfect for what we had in mind. It’s almost like we didn’t find the building, but the building found us. When we walked in it just captured our hearts. Even better, because it’s so beautiful and strong we didn’t have to do too much, other than reconfiguring and reinterpreting the space’. During the renovation they touched very little so to show the character of the building which dates back to 1910. Over the years it has gone through a few hands – Minister of Foreign Affairs and BOI – and every tenant has left their marks. As you go through the building you see the traces of the past. ‘The woodwork is still in such a good condition and the spaces have great natural light, they’re built around an inner courtyard. From the top floor you can look all the way down to the lobby.’ Brindha shares that it’s a really great project to work on, ‘at some point we had one hundred woodworkers on site’ and a steep learning curve ‘we tried to do the building justice, but there is no established rulebook for heritage renovation, what you can and cannot do.’
The fifth floor of the former government bank building, now undergoing renovation
The revamped 2nd floor, now a bright, airy and cosy coworking space
Want to discover Fort’s history and heritage?
Find these and more hidden gems in Fort Colombo with the iDiscover Colombo Guide featuring four handcrafted itineraries that show you the honest and authentic places in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Fort, Cinnamon Gardens, Slave Island and Pettah. Comes with a free app that is packed with background stories and insider secrets!
Explore more of Fort’s hidden gems with the iDiscover App&Map
Words by Ester van Steekelenburg
Ester moved from Amsterdam to Hong Kong Just before the handover in 1997… with little more than a backpack. She fell in love with the city’s energy and almost 20 years later, she still calls Hong Kong home; a base from where she works on cultural heritage projects throughout Asia. Her favourite cities include Hanoi, Istanbul and Yangon. In Hong Kong she’s happiest exploring the city’s busy backstreets or hiking in the country parks.
Photography by Kesara Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara – a quick adaptor – can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality. Check out his website.