“We’ve been an institution here for years”: The De Mel Building and Pagoda

The De Mel building was established in 1870, and at that time it was one of the tallest buildings in Colombo. It was built by Sir Henry De Mel, the grandfather of Romesh De Mel, the current Managing Director. The purpose of the building was to house their family business, i.e. the management of their own coconut plantations. The family had about 4,000 coconut estates at that time, but now, they have only about 700 estates because of land reforms. The building is still their head office and it has remained with the family. Pagoda is their oldest tenant and has been there for more than 95 years. Colombo Fort was the hub of the commercial capital during that time. The Old General Post Office and President’s House were located there, and Colombo Fort was one of the best shopping areas during that time.

Romesh De Mel says, “This was the main business and shopping area during the British era, and it is regaining its glory because they have now removed the barriers after the war.”

The special architectural features of the building are, its high ceilings and beautiful carvings. It is a heritage building and the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has stated that the exterior of the building cannot be altered. However, the interior of the building has been re-designed, and is one of the few buildings which has an arcade.

High security zone

The Pagoda Tea Rooms were opened in 1884 by the current Managing Director Chanaka Rodrigo’s great grandfather along with three Englishmen. Rodrigo purchased the business from the English when the First World War broke out. In 1951, Rodrigo’s father began working there and his uncles worked at Green Cabin. In the late 70s and early 80s the Pagoda would always be full at lunch time, with different tables for tea brokers, shipping and insurance agents, as they had their small groups.

But, all that changed with the war. Rodrigo is the fourth generation in the business and is proud to be a part of it. He recalls, in the late 70s and early 80s people would come to the Pettah to do their shopping and then visit Pagoda. But, now people have moved out of the Fort. During the war it was a high security zone and people were frisked and body searched. But, even with all these problems, their clientele in the Fort still came to Pagoda. They have been in these premises in the De Mel building for over 95 years.

But, Rodrigo says, things have changed now. About 25 years ago there was a big restaurant. Now, more than 70 percent of their revenue is generated from the take away business. Pagoda sells a lot of cakes, and compared to Green Cabin their cake sale is much more. Rodrigo says, “People don’t come like they did those days. Going back 25 years, if you came here around twelve thirty, you wouldn’t be able to get a table for lunch. With the war and with bombs going off, a lot of businesses moved out of Fort. It is only now, after peace has been gained that more people visit the Fort, giving rise to activities, building hotels, etc. which is only in the last couple of years. During the war years, the Fort was a target and people kept away from the Fort.”

He says, managing with the security restrictions was tough, but they overcame the situation. They did not have adequate parking facilities and had to obtain permits to bring food. Seven years after the war, they still have to get a permit for their vehicles, especially, lorries. In certain areas of the city, heavy vehicles or lorries are still not allowed without permits. Rodrigo says, ten or fifteen years ago sales were better, but revenue has grown because of price increases. Customers have decreased because there are a lesser number of people in Fort now than in those days, and also, there are many food outlets at every corner, now.

Pagoda currently has about ten outlets. Rodrigo elaborates, “People who were in the Fort came here, because, this place was all they knew. We’ve been an institution here for years. A few years back there were suggestions by some to change this place into an O bar, but I was of the view, being an institution here, it should be available to people in all walks of life.”

Nostalgic reasons

The Pagoda business is about 130 years old and are accessible to everyone. Their customer base consists of mainly office workers and people working in the Fort area.

Rodrigo says, “in early 1983 or before the war, there were many tourists in Fort, and at any given time there were about 20 or 30 foreigners in Pagoda. But today, very few foreigners come to Fort and you hardly see a foreigner, whereas prior to 1983 there were a lot of foreigners in Chatham Street. People reminisce about coming here with their grandparents after Christmas shopping, but that does not happen anymore.”

People visit Pagoda for nostalgic reasons and the colonial look suits the place. Rodrigo says, he has a lot of memories and attachment to Pagoda.

It was renovated in 2013, and there are old water colour paintings he got done of the Fort, during the British era. They opened a new branch in November, and he says, one of the biggest issues they face, is to find new staff for their outlets.

Pix Saman Mendis 

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