Mackinnon Mackenzie building : Preserving the old world charm | Sunday Observer

Mackinnon Mackenzie building : Preserving the old world charm

Pic courtesy: Internet
Pic courtesy: Internet

Mackinnon Mackenzie and Company of Ceylon Limited in York Street, Fort is one of the oldest companies in Sri Lanka. The building was initially used to book passage and to book cargo on Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) ships and it is well over 100 years old. Mackinnon and Mackenzie has a history that goes back to the British India Steamship Company and P&O. The company moved into its present premises in York Street in 1917.

The Mackinnon building contains some eye-catching features in design and style. In fact, quite noticeable is its exterior about which I thought an architect could elaborate.

According to Architect Asiri Dissanayake, “throughout the years the building has gone through major renovations. However, most of the original architectural features have been reintroduced to some extent. The original building features Ionic style columns on the building exterior. These columns are prevalent in the renovated building. However, the prominent capitol of the Ionic order has been replaced by a more plain design. The arcade, with square columns is an addition from one of the first renovations and it gives a more functional aesthetic style to the building. The three half-round arches in the first floor have been maintained through the multiple renovations.

The most interesting architectural feature in the whole building is the half round arch, columns and the two domes combination at the top most floor of the main exterior. This feature has been maintained from the original design. However, it has undergone some changes in the recent renovations. For instance, the geometry of the capitol has changed from circular to more oblong shape. However, even with the multiple renovations, the original architectural features have made the building stand out as one of the fine examples of historic British period buildings.”


When asked about the early history and current status of Mackinnon and Mackenzie, Romesh David, CEO of South Asia Gateway Terminals (SAGT) and President of the John Keells Transportation Group which is now the parent company of Mackinnon and Mackenzie says, “The exterior of the building remains in its original condition but a part of the building has been restored. The business of being steamer agents or Mackinnon and Mackenzie shipping which was the original business still exists as a company but not with P&O because P&O as a cargo carrying company ceased to exist in 2005 when it was bought over by Maersk line, a Danish company and then amalgamated. But Mackinnon Mackenzie shipping still continues to handle vessels that call at Colombo.”

The company moved into its current premises in the heart of Colombo 101 years ago. David says, the building is special to his company and also to Colombo in general. “It is a heritage site in every sense of the word. It is a building that epitomizes the maritime tradition of Sri Lanka because the British India Steam Navigation Company represented the Peninsular and Oriental Company (P&O) which was at the time of the British Raj probably the dominant cargo and passenger carrying company. And in all the depictions of Old Fort the Mackinnons Building and the Grand Oriental Hotel are really two prime locations because as you come ashore on the Queen Elizabeth key or at the Bandaranaike key, or when you enter through the Old Ports Authority building the first thing you see is York Street, flanked by these two buildings. They are very much alike in terms of style, and for John Keells which came into the group in the early 70s - the Mackinnons Group was acquired by the John Keells Group in the early 70s, it has formed an integral part of what is the transportation group of John Keells today because many of the transport, shipping, freight forwarding and airline companies came through the Mackinnons Group. In a sense even SAGT was born out of the association that John Keells had with the P&O Group and that association came through the acquisition of Mackinnons.”


Most companies move into ultra modern new buildings when they expand. The Mackinnons building has coped with the changes and expansion proposed by John Keells. David explains, “The interior still retains much of its old world charm but we have all the modern facilities, there are properly developed offices inside. Given that the building is a heritage building development has not been possible. There is also a ceiling in terms of height – the maximum permissible height is the level of the dome of the Grand Oriental Hotel. It would have been much more impressive if the building had retained its original style, but it had to be restored. But many of the companies for example, the airline, shipping and freight forwarding are there. But there are many new companies that are in there as well. For example, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and a tea company. In that sense John Keells has remained very versatile in using the properties that it has around the city and the Mackinnon building continues to be one of those.”

David says, with regard to the unique architectural features of the building, “the hugely high ceilings, the gap between floors is massive and when you think that it has withstood a century of use on the outside and essentially the exterior is untouched it’s pretty impressive. Certain parts of the roof are untouched as well.” The steps being taken to preserve this building and its shipping heritage, David explains, “In terms of preservation we are quite fierce in preserving the exterior, the look and in fact even the colour we have left unchanged. It’s still that same gray cement type of colour that we preserved. We make sure that the mouldings whenever they are damaged are restored to their original. On the inside of course we have had to upgrade things such as floors but out of necessity we preserve the outward and it is very much a part of the heritage of the group.”

When asked how it feels to work in such a historic company and building, David says, “For me personally it’s very significant because as an 18 year old trainee it was also my first place of work 38 years ago. That was when Walkers Tours was housed in the Mackinnons building. I was not in shipping at the time. I was in Walkers Tours but it had to move. But over my career in the group I have been in and out of this building for 38 years and it’s indelibly a part of my experience in the group, including the current Chairman of John Keells who also joined Mackinnons as his first job in 1978. So he’s been here 40 years now and his start was also at the Mackinnons building.”

Unfortunately, the environment around the building is polluted. David says, “I think the Municipality could have done a little bit more as it is an area that could do with some cleaning up. The building itself is flanked by much newer buildings and the old Sathosa, and the Apothecaries buildings are being restored.”

David says it is important to protect historic colonial buildings such as Mackinnon Mackenzie. “That part of the heritage is mixed in today’s context in terms of its colonial connotations. When you look at cities that are all modern and all chrome and all glass and don’t have a history that goes back more than 30 or 40 years, I think Fort particularly is Sri Lanka’s attraction as a tourist destination and the fact that we are going to depend on visitor traffic and we should depend on visitor traffic, preserving the colonial, old world charm of an area such as the Fort is important. In my view it should be made entirely a walking area, be made a clean zone, we should not be permitting vehicles, trishaws or buses inside. With the advent of the Port City where we will have an ultra modern city, having the old Fort area I think will add tremendous diversity and charm not only to people living in the city and living in Sri Lanka but also from a tourist perspective. It will give two very different flavours.”