As the Tata family fortunes increased, Nusserwanji Tata and his son Jamsetji decided to build a home in Bombay.
By the mid 1880's, Nusserwanji on his son's advice, selected a site on the Esplanade, opposite the Gymkhana and near Alexandra School in the Fort area, Bombay. In front of the plot was a maidan, the low houses at New Marine Lines, the railway line and beyond, the Arabian Sea. It was in a central position and within easy reach of their Office.
The plot was obtained on a 999 years' lease, at a price of Rs 25 to Rs 30 a sq. ft. This was the only plot (formed by the amalgamation of three small plots) on Waudby Road that had a residential building amidst commercial, institutional and public buildings which came up in the restricted Fort Area, after the demolition of the Fort Walls.
It was Nusserwanji’s intention to have the architectural plans prepared in Europe. The architects of the Esplanade House were Messrs. Gostling and Morris. He had also sought permission from the Government to build a portico large enough for a carriage to drive under, and protect the passengers from the monsoon rains. The foundations of the house were laid in Nusserwanji’s time but were completed by his son, Jamsetji Tata, after his father passed away.
Construction of Esplanade House began in 1885. Jamsetji Tata instructed the architect, James Morris, of Messrs. Gostling and Morris to construct a mansion in the classical style, with a central courtyard, surrounded by corridors, like the “patios” which he had seen in Spain. The rooms were large, but few in number. A marble staircase lent splendour to the interiors, and the glass roof of the courtyard was a novel feature in Bombay (Mumbai). The whole house was furnished in European fashion. Every feature of the Esplanade House was of his own design. The house was built at a cost of Rs 6 lakhs. Jamsetji and his family moved into the house in 1887.
Esplanade house comprised two buildings. The main building comprised the ground floor plus two upper storeys and an annexe at the rear which had a ground floor for stables and stores and an upper floor for the accommodation of the staff. Fountains, statues and other artefacts adorned the magnificent gardens. A marble drinking water trough used for the horses, and a statue of a Saint Bernard which sits, poised and alert, atop the watchman’s cabin with a wooden keg around his neck still exist to this day.
The wrought-iron gates were adorned with the Tata Crest - a hand holding aloft a bar of iron, inscribed with the words in the Avestan language - Humata, Hukhta, Havarshta, meaning “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”. The Banquet Hall and Billiard Room were an important part of the main mansion. Chandeliers added magnificence to the interiors. The Dining Room had a dining table that could seat over twenty people. Jamsetji, had a voracious appetite for knowledge and had a well-stocked library.
Esplanade House was one of the first houses in the city to be lit with electricity, to have concealed wiring and an elevator.
Ratan and Navajbai Tata resided with Jamsetji until 1904. Dorabji and Meherbai Tata who had set up house on Malabar Hill moved into Esplanade House shortly after Jamsetji’s demise.
After Sir Dorabji Tata passed away, Esplanade House was sold to R.D. Sethna in 1934. On the death of R.D. Sethna, it became the property of the R.D. Sethna Charity Trust and was subsequently transferred to the Trustees of the R.D. Sethna Scholarship Fund.
In the late 1930s, major alterations were carried out to the original buildings.
Around 2004, the Trustees of the R.D. Sethna Scholarship Fund decided to conserve this heritage building. The restoration, carried out in three phases, took around ten years to complete. It covered practically all aspects of conservation, from structural repairs to architectural restoration, from landscape to interiors and adaptive reuse, to infrastructure upgradation.