A New Life for Fort’s Heritage Buildings; Meet the Entrepreneurs Who Make it Happen
Fort 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, 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 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.
Memories of Prince Street
In the old days, Prince Street was the city’s most prominent boulevard and home to the big financial powerhouses. 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.
A home for Colombo’s young entrepreneurs
Next to the two banks is Hatch, 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 eco-system 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.
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 the Board of Investment - 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 was an ambitious project, "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."
Wood, steel and bricks
The solid wooden door is so heavy, we know we must be in for something special. We’re not disappointed, the space is large with exposed brick walls, original steel beams and a long wooden bar with tinkling glasses. This used to be an old, run-down bar for port workers with a slightly dodgy reputation but has recently reopened as The Re.Pub.Lk 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.
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 in 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."
Colombo Heritage Collective
Colombo Heritage Collective is an NGO that cares for Colombo’s heritage and looks for ways to preserve the city’s unique identity in a time of rapid urbanisation.www.facebook.com/colomboheritagecollective
This project is supported by the Shared Cultural Heritage Fund of Dutch Culture.dutchculture.nl
Cantaloupe & Co
Sri Lankan lifestyle brand with a passion for local culture and designwww.cantaloupehotels.com
Mika Tennekoon is a carefree and creative spirit inspired by the deep cultural traditions of her country. She’s most happy wherever there’s sun & surf.mikaten.blogspot.com