South of Fort and Pettah sits the suburb of Cinnamon Gardens. Its name is a reference to what used to stand here in the Dutch period – acres and acres of cinnamon orchards.
Its name is also a reference to one of the most important spices in the history of the island of Sri Lanka/Ceylon. True cinnamon is indigeneous to Sri Lanka – for centuries, it grew only here.
The Romans and the Arabs traded in cinnamon with early Ceylon. And it was in pursuit of this very spice that the Portuguese, and then the Dutch arrived on these shores. Believing at first that cinnamon could only thrive in a wild state, the Dutch finally discovered that it could grow in gardens.
By the early 1800s, trade in cinnamon (and the spice trade in general) had diminished. In the mid 1850s, the British cleared out the cinnamon gardens, and relocated Colombo’s Turf Club and Race Course from Galle Face to here. It was then the idea of Cinnamon Gardens as a new administrative and residential centre of Colombo really took off.
The rich and influential residents of the city moved here and erected their stately bungalows and villas in verdant estates. Elegant boulevards, thoroughfares and circles were laid between the villas, with names such as Queen Street, Albert Crescent, Maitland Place and Rosmead Place. Schools, colleges and places of worship sprang up.
Today, Cinnamon Gardens retains much of its elegant and genteel air and is home to many of the city’s Government offices – including the Prime Minister’s Office – as well as foreign embassies and consulates . It is well worth a leisurely stroll for the intrepid visitor.
At the heart of Cinnamon Gardens is the former Victoria Park, known today as Viharamahadevi Park. To the north of the park stands one of the most important landmarks in this district – the Town Hall, built in 1928 in a style that self-consciously references the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. To the south of the park stands the venerable National Museum of Colombo, established in 1877 and one of the most important museum institutions in the Subcontinent.
Just south of the Museum sits the Independence Memorial Hall, completed in 1953. It sits in what is formerly known as Torrington Square and today called Independence Square. Immediately to the south is Arcade Independence Square. Occupying a former asylum converted in the 1900s into the Auditor General’s Office, a cluster of Neoclassical buildings from the British era has been immaculately conserved and re-purposed as a lifestyle precinct in the vein of the Dutch Hospital in Fort.
The former Colombo Racecourse Ground, a mere 10 minute walk away, has followed in the steps of Independent Square, in having been also restored and converted into a shopping and F & B cluster.
All in all – the prevalent use of adaptive re-use reminded me very much also of how historic buildings are conserved and re-used in Singapore.
Finally, no visit to Cinnamon Gardens can be complete without a stop-in at these two important places.
I refer, first of all, to the Dutch Burgher Union Building on Reid Street, on the southwestern edge of Cinnamon Gardens – where one may learn more about the history of the Dutch Burghers (or Eurasians), and where one may partake of a scrumptious meal of authentic lampreis.
I refer, also to Paradise Road The Gallery Cafe on Alfred House Road (admittedly some distance west of Cinnamon Gardens and the Dutch Burgher Union). The Cafe is housed in the former offices of architect, Geoffrey Bawa, who had personally approved the takeover of the property and its conversion into a gallery and restaurant. The cafe serves excellent local and international grub.