The venerable Customs House, a superb Italian style building dating back to 1888, is due to be finally turned into a hotel as the government is asking the owner U City to pay for the 30-year concession. A happy end for a building which is part of Thailand proud history?
It was a majestic structure when it opened in 1888 as the Royal Customs Building in the midst of the European town, this district along New Road (today Charoen Krung) which was the centre of all trade activities. Built by Austrian-Italian architect Joachim Grassi, the building has been for almost 130 years an iconic structure along the Chao Praya River with its large classical facade crowned by a pediment evoking Palladian villas of Northern Italy.
For decades, the building has been the centre of a controversy. Half abandoned with only families of Bang Rak district firemen brigade living within its premises and visitors coming to take romantic pictures, the place was close to collapse despite its important historical value.
Projects to turn it into a cultural centre, then into a luxury heritage property under the Aman Hotels & Resorts brand were put on ice. But it seems that now, the building will finally become a luxury five-star hotel, getting a much needed facelift.
The Treasury Department, the landlord of the property, is amending a contract it awarded the property developer to include some major obligations: that it regenerate the structure and incorporate conservation efforts into its project to reinvent the heritage building. The owner of the property, U City, is due to pay THB1.6 billion (US$516 million) for a 30-year concession.It is also expected that U City will have to probably spend as much as its concession fee to renovate the place, respecting the historical value and the exceptional architecture of the place.
Some local communities particularly ‘Friends of the River’, a network of urban conservationists and professional architects, wrote to the government to ask that the property could be used as a public place. The Customs House would actually do a wonderful centre for arts or for architecture promotion.
It is however unlikely that it will be the destiny of the place. The hotel is likely to be a popular place for guests as it will face Icon Siam, Bangkok newest shopping mall currently in construction along the Chao Praya River. Many hotels and condominiums are popping up around the river as real estate companies and hotels suddenly rediscover the Chao Praya as a major asset of Bangkok tourism. A compromise could maybe be found as the government already amended the contract?
What ever the result, at least the Customs House will gain back its former glory while Bangkok’s gentrification seems to be unstoppable…