For scores of Chennaivasis, or Madrasis if you will, before the city was renamed in 1996, who grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, the Chola Sheraton on Cathedral Road, a key city artery, was an iconic landmark. That, and the Taj Coromandel hotel farther down the road, were the only two five star hotels which dominated upscale city events. Or, the venue to celebrate momentous occasions.

Over the years, past Presidents, Prime Ministers and TN Chief Ministers have visited Chola as well as movie stars Amitabh Bachchan, the late NTR and Rajesh Khanna while super star Rajnikanth was a regular. The victorious cricket team which won the 1983 World Cup stayed at the 90-room Chola when they arrived in then Madras after their victory.

Now, the almost 50-year-old Chennai landmark, ITC’s first hotel, and rebranded as WelcomHotel a few years ago, is being relaunched with a top-to-down makeover. On entering, one espies a large art work panel depicting the Valluvar Kottam monument in a sikku kolam pattern. The vast lobby, where stands a majestic Nataraja – which wasn’t even moved during the renovation, says Ila Prabhu, the GM – and the passages, and the rooms too, feature sketches in black and white of the vestiges of old Madras which still exist – from the Central and Egmore railway stations, the High Court, Ripon Buildings (seat of the Corporation of Chennai). A clutch of new restaurants, refurbished rooms, curated buffets, a la carte spreads, a bunch of fresh cocktails with ‘inventive mixology’, a new Fabelle chocolate takeaway counter in the lobby, will greet visitors and guests alike.

WelcomHotel lobby

WelcomHotel lobby

As Zubin Songadwala, Vice President, Operations, South and East, ITC Hotels, points out, the hotel is an amalgamation of heritage, local aesthetics, contemporary veneers, and modern-day comforts, along with ITC Hotels’ renowned culinary offerings.

Zubin Songadwala - VP, Operations South & East

Zubin Songadwala - VP, Operations South & East

Street food of Chennai is reimagined and presented in the WelcomCafe Marina; Durrant’s Bar will showcase a large selection of premium beverages and herbal and organic cocktails, some of which take imaginatively their name from the hotel’s location and origin such as 1975, Madras 86 (area PIN code), Cathedral Road Collins et al. Sunbean Cafe serves short eats, finger food, tea, and coffee while the Mahjong Room will dish out the crux of Chinese cuisine.

WelcomCafe Marina

WelcomCafe Marina

Historic location

The location of the WelcomHotel is historic and a testament to that is a plaque that stands at the entrance to the hotel and explains an important piece of the nation’s history. In the compound where the hotel has come up, was the house of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, the former Editor of The Hindu, where Rajaji was staying. As the plaque explains, “In this premises, known as Tilak Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi spent the restless historic night of March 18, 1919, when the sad tidings of the passing of the humiliating Rowlatt Bills enveloped him before the day dawned, the idea of an all-India hartal occured to Gandhiji in a dream which later blossomed into the non-violent, non-cooperation movement.”

A plaque explaining Mahatma Gandhi’s stay at the property, which once stood where the hotel is, is displayed.

A plaque explaining Mahatma Gandhi’s stay at the property, which once stood where the hotel is, is displayed. | Photo Credit: Bijoy Ghosh

Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji in the house where WelcomHotel now stands

Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji in the house where WelcomHotel now stands | Photo Credit: Bijoy Ghosh

It’s on this site that ITC’s journey into hotels began. As The Hindu in a news item dated September 11, 1975, and headlined ‘ITC efforts to promote tourism’ points out: “...the India Tobacco Company, owners of Hotel Chola, the new ₹3 crore, five star 100-roomed concrete and glass monolith, feels that it is due to compulsions of the company’s desire to participate in the economic development of the country. Mr AN Haksar, Chairman of ITC, said that the promotion of tourism could bring in large foreign exchange to the was the desire to earn foreign exchange that had made ITC enter the hotel trade by starting three hotel projects at Madras, Agra and New Delhi.”

From this first hotel, ITC’s hotel group has grown to have 131 operational properties across 80 destinations while brand Welcomhotel is currently 24 properties strong, with eight owned and 16 managed hotels.

Old-timers nostalgic

Old-timers recall with nostalgia the charm of Chola. “We used to hang out at Mercara, the coffee shop, dine at the roof top restaurant Saagri, which had great food and a brilliant view of Chennai and nice music to dance. Then there was the Chinese restaurant called Shanghai; the best was Peshawri serving NW Frontier food and a restaurant to go to for all celebrations and take the bosses to when they were in town. The Durrant’s bar was a favourite in later years; and then there were so many weddings at the Mandapam,” reminisces a long-time Chennai resident with a sigh.

Songadwala acknowledges the tug of nostalgia that old-timers of the city have with the hotel, when he says, “Welcomhotel Chennai endeavours to uphold the legacy of being the chain’s first property. We are grateful to the people of Chennai for their patronage and shall continue to create experiences as a reminder of everything that this city represents.”

The relaunched hotel, he says, is an ideal ‘bleisure’ and ‘staycation’ destination open to city residents, corporates, consulates, business and leisure travellers, MICE and weddings, banquets and the entertainment industry. And, its location right in the city’s core is the icing on the cake. As the GM, Ila Prabhu, points out, during the recent December music season, there was a clamour from many overseas and domestic visitors for rooms as the hotel’s location is close to all the major Sabhas hosting the music season. But, unfortunately, the hotel wasn’t open then, she says.

The new avatar of the hotel has the elements that drew earlier Madras residents to the hotel. While the iconic Peshawri restaurant has moved to the ITC Grand Chola and in its place is the all-day diner, WelcomCafe Marina, in place of Mercara is the Sunbean Cafe while Durrant’s bar continues, while the rooftop Saagri has transformed into a small banquet hall. The Mandapam hall, with a capacity of 375 people, has been enlarged from its earlier avatar as well. “Welcomhotel Chennai, is the new age traveller’s key to curated immersive experiences that enrich both business and leisure journeys. Our communication shall highlight the same through various media,” explains Songadwala. One can sit back at Durrant’s (old timers recall it once even had a jhoola!) with yet another exotic cocktail, Night Manager (a tribute to many of the late-night corporate patrons) and savour the refurbished hotel.