Splendors of Sri Lanka
The island's Dutch colonial heritage shines through at Amangalla, a historic hotel reimagined by Kerry Hill Architects
Tom Beer -- Interior Design, 10/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Like much of Sri Lanka, Galle is a tantalizing blend of myth and history. The coastal city's fort, with its massive stone walls, has enclosed the old town since the Portuguese arrived in the 1500's. The Dutch captured the fort in 1640, hoping to profit from the island's vibrant spice trade. And nowhere else in Sri Lanka is the Dutch influence felt as strongly: from the Great Church, a sober 1752 edifice with a floor paved in gravestones, to the 1669 Old Gate, where a carved coat of arms, the crowing cock of Galle, is inscribed with the initials of the Dutch East India Company. If that isn't enough, scholars have proposed the theory that this Indian Ocean colonial port may furthermore be the Old Testament's Tarshish, where King Solomon acquired his spices, gems, and peacocks, and Jonah sought refuge.
Walk into Amangalla—the Amanresort that began its life in 1684 as the headquarters of the Dutch command in Galle and later housed Britain's 83rd regiment—and you'll be struck by both the rich heritage and the utter timelessness. It's not difficult to imagine soldiers and their wives drinking tea in the shade of the colonnaded street-side veranda or cocktails beneath the high beamed ceiling and spidery chandeliers of the massive zaal, Dutch for great hall. (Aman is Sanskrit for peace, and Galla is what the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's largest ethnic group, call Galle.)
The building assumed its modern incarnation in 1865, when English businessmen converted the property into the New Oriental Hotel. It was acquired by the Ephramus family in 1899 and owned by them until Nesta Ephramus Brohier sold to Amanresorts on May 7, 1995—her 90th birthday. To Amanresorts founder and CEO Adrian Zecha, the site was irresistible. Zecha had admired the New Oriental for more than two decades, and he appreciated Galle's old-world charm and proximity to Sri Lanka's southern beaches.
Amanresorts owned the property for several years before Zecha enlisted Kerry Hill Architects—which had designed Amansara in Cambodia and Amanusa in Bali—to undertake a major restoration. At Amangalla, principal Kerry Hill and architect Terry Fripp set out to channel the New Oriental in its prime. "It was a shabby old thing in its last few years, but it did have a tremendous sense of history and the glamour of travel in the East," Fripp says. As Hill puts it, "We worked on creating a ' seamless transition from old to new. People who were guests before should walk in and ask, 'So what have they done?' Then it unfolds."
The Dutch-era exterior walls of granite, coral, and lime plaster remain intact, as does the first floor's grand zaal, housing the lounge and dining room. On the second and third floors, Kerry Hill Architects removed walls from the warrenlike interiors to enlarge the guest rooms and baths. Amangalla now has seven standard rooms, 10 larger ones, eight suites, and a separate two-story, 1,500-square-foot guest house in the tropical garden embraced by the U-shape main building.
Brohier's garden inspired the plantings of palm trees, frangipani, and heliconia. For the interiors, Fripp says that he and Hill "imagined how the headquarters might have looked in Dutch colonial ' times." Hence the spacious whitewashed rooms, the arched shutters, the hand-blocked indigo and madder prints, and the enormous framed mirrors—evoking the domestic comfort of a painting by Jan Vermeer. Fripp designed the chandeliers and sconces in stainless steel brushed until it had a satiny finish, suggesting antique pewter. He also commissioned Dutch-style four-posters and chairs modeled after seating in the 1757 Wolvendaal Church in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. All are solid jakwood, a local species; Fripp stained them to achieve a dark, rich period color. In addition, Amangalla retains much of the furniture that belonged to the New Oriental—including wicker-backed planter's chairs and old-style Dutch sea chests, now carefully restored.
To bring the hotel gracefully into the spa culture of the 21st century, the architects converted a billiard room and housekeeping cellars into the Amangalla Baths. The mood here is almost monastic. A gently ascending arched passageway leads to five rooms where massages, traditional barber's services, and beauty treatments take place. Opposite, the separate men's and women's areas each offers a hydrotherapy and water-massage pool, a sauna, and steam and cold-plunge pools. In an adjacent part of the garden, stands a new pavilion for yoga and meditation.
By a twist of fate, Amangalla had its soft opening last December 15, a mere 11 days before the tsunami struck Sri Lanka and much of southern Asia. Incredibly, the fort's stone ramparts—rebuilt by the Dutch more than 300 years ago—were able to withstand the wave. Hundreds of locals sought refuge in the old town, and many found welcome shelter and food at Amangalla. Though it closed for two months as Sri Lanka struggled to regain its bearings, the resort is now receiving tourists from around the globe. "It became clear that the best way to help people was to give them their jobs back," explains Amanresorts marketing director Trina Dingler Ebert. "It was a big moment for the staff as well as the community to say, 'Let's carry on here.'"