Heritage

Colonialists' statement they were here to stay

emperor

The Emperor Plaza on Koinange Street in Nairobi on September 5, 2018. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

History was my worst subject in secondary school, and I quickly dropped the subject when the opportunity presented itself. I just could not stand cramming dates, strange names of places and people.

However, when I had my epiphany seven years ago, I realised that Kenyans did not have a good grasp of their own history and whatever history they may have learned was incomplete and distorted because it was written and told with an agenda to acculturate them. Our history beyond 1895 was conveniently deemed to be uncivilised and savage.

Labour of love

A nation without a good understanding of its history is doomed because it lacks a platform on which to chart its future with the result that it keeps reinventing the wheel and making the same mistakes over and over again.

It is because of my desire to tell our history from an objective point of view that my interest was aroused but I wanted to narrate our history in a way that would not just regurgitate facts, rather in a way that would hold the readers attention and make interesting reading.

One of my first special purpose vehicles for telling our history was through the medium of national monuments and old colonial buildings.

My training in real estate management and appraisal put me at a distinct advantage in this regard. Doing the research and interviews for my articles is a true labour of love but I thoroughly enjoy the journey.

For a long time, I have been trying to write the history of Hotel Avenue, but it has been very difficult to obtain accurate information. I did not give up.

Patience pays. Recently, quite unexpectedly, I came across a post by an old Kenya resident Doris Johnston quoting from a 1930 publication East Africa and Rhodesia by Alister Macmillan with pictures and information on Hotel Avenue.

Situated on a corner plot on Sixth Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue today) with a return frontage to Sadler Street (Koinange Street today), construction of Hotel Avenue started in 1927 and was completed at the beginning of 1929, about the same time as Torr’s Hotel at the other end of the street.

Walls are constructed in reinforced concrete as are the supporting columns which featured extensive quoining in the original design.

Floors are finished in the choicest teak wood as are the internal wall claddings and doors while windows are now glazed in aluminium casements. Staircases and corridors are finished in handsome terrazzo of white and white marble chips.

According to Alister Macmillan, each of the bedrooms was endowed with perfect sanitation, hot and cold-water services. On the top floor of the hotel was an excellent ballroom with a very ornamental roof.

Elegance and comfort

All the internal appointments were on a scale of elegance and comfort comparable to 5-star hotels in Europe. The entrance hall, lounges, and reception rooms, including delightful boudoirs for ladies left no doubt that every possible effort was made to provide comfort and convenience for guests.

The owner of the building was James Walker, an enterprising Scotsman, while the lessees of Hotel Avenue were H.E. Waller, Mrs H. Jarret, and R.T. Bowyer, all partners in the very popular and well-appointed Trocadero Restaurant on Government Road (Moi Avenue today).

The building was a split-level six storey structure served by an electric lift with a commanding view of the main street of Nairobi at the time and further afield residents could see game on the plains surrounding the city.

Alister Macmillan continues to write, “On its square tower, 100 feet from the ground, flutters the Union Jack… The splendid building may be taken as a concrete example of faith in the future of Kenya, which is as yet practically undeveloped in view of the remarkable potentialities of the colony.”

Segregation policy

Hotel Avenue was one of the earliest edifices of the settler community pronouncing in no uncertain terms that they were in Kenya for the long haul. Sixth Avenue, on which the hotel stands was soon after renamed Delamere Avenue in furtherance of this cause.

It goes without saying that Africans were not permitted to enter the hotel in keeping with the colony’s segregation policy. In 1961, the hotel was completely refurbished and renamed New Avenue Hotel.

I remember during the 1970s, there was a classy bar on the ground floor which I patronised when funds allowed!

Across the street, was a not so classy building originally known as Tudor House but in popular culture at the time was known as the “House of Dolls,” a notorious fleshpot which was later condemned and redeveloped by HFCK. Further up the road was Sombrero Club and later the Florida 2000 Club. The notoriety of Koinange Street started many years ago!

In the late 1980s the hotel changed ownership and became known as Excelsior Hotel. Today, the building serves as a commercial property providing mostly office space and is dwarfed by the surrounding modern skyscrapers. It is known as Emperor Plaza.

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