Historic Hotel Surabaya Partially Destroyed: Bandung, West Java

Bandung Heritage activists were recently outraged watching the demolition works on parts of Hotel Surabaya, a structure that witnessed the early development of the West Java capital of Bandung. Located on Jl. Kebonjati near the Bandung railway station, the hotel was built by a Chinese businessman in 1884 when the station to connect the city with Batavia, the former name of Jakarta, was also being constructed.

Workers were recently seen tearing down most of the hotel’s walls, reducing them to piles of rubble. The complex is now enclosed by tall corrugated iron fences, with only the tower of the building left to be seen, Yuli Tri Suwarni explains.

Asep, a car tire repairman who has operated his kiosk in the alley on the right side of the hotel since 1987, said the place was sold late last year and renovation began early this year.

He said the hotel, comprising three different buildings, used to be frequented by travel agents from Jakarta due to its very low rates, ranging from between Rp 20,000 to 50,000 a night.

Until the end of last year, it continued to exist as a magnificent sight in the evening, with bright lights glittering from its rooms, attracting the attention of road users.

Dibyo Hartono, a Bandung Heritage proponent, said Hotel Surabaya could be the oldest lodging facility in Bandung erected in response to the urban growth.

Based on library sources, the triple-building complex started with the mansion of its proprietor, a Chinese tycoon, by the end of the 19th century. With the growing urban business, the next buildings for accommodation were set up.

“The Chinese businessman observed the urban growth as an accommodation business opportunity, as many people from Batavia would visit and stay in Bandung,” said Dibyo, who is also an architecture lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology.

Bandung history books in Dutch indicate that in the 1900s the buildings were leased to another party, which converted the entire compound into a hotel, before returning it to the original owner in 1960.

Hotel Surabaya is older than Pasar Baru, the first modern shopping area in Bandung built in 1906.

The hotel’s oldest part is the front tower house built in art-nouveau style, with climbing-plant decorated doors and metal ceilings. The lower building has a tower and steep roofs, believed to imitate Dutch designs.

“In the Netherlands, steep roofs allow snow to fall quickly instead of accumulating on rooftops,” said Dibyo.

The second building is more eclectic in the sense of retaining past values while trying modern touches. Its eastern part, built around the 1920s, is a wooden storied structure in art-deco style.

The third building behind the other two, according to Dibyo, is neoclassical, as represented by the veranda-like open space in its front.

The three buildings are also characterized by their western classical interior, adorned with ceramics imported from Holland. Their floors with Dutch-made tiles of the 1910s are unique, bearing various pictures including windmills, while the motifs for walls are mostly flowers and climbing plants.

In terms of construction technique, Dibyo said the hotel was not built using a concrete material method applied in the construction of art-deco hotels Homann (1897) and Preanger (1889).

“Its walls, as thick as 30 centimeters, followed the brick material concept. Such buildings are now rare. The brick walls indicate the absence of concrete and their roofs are thus lighter, generally made of wood,” he added.

In a recent discussion organized by Bandung Heritage, the unique features of Hotel Surabaya were described as its distinction shared by no other structures in Bandung.

The hotel, for instance, has different shaped windows. Once, the hotel was called the “Blue Building” because all of its door and window frames and some walls were painted blue.

In the 1990s, Dibyo claimed he and Bandung Heritage members were consulted when the hotel’s American owner, the son-in-law of the child of its original owner, wanted to renovate it.
“At that time, we supported his plan to preserve all the buildings as they are unique and have historic significance,” Dibyo said.

Meanwhile, Askary Wiantaatmadja, head of the Culture and Tourism Office of Bandung, confirmed the hotel is one of 153 historic buildings to be put under government supervision.

“It is in fact brought under the concept of cultural heritage conservation, requiring the maintenance of its front structure,” Askary said.

He acknowledged having consented to the hotel’s renovation because most parts of the buildings had been damaged, so that reconstruction was allowed by removing the walls and replacing decomposed bricks and rearranging them.

He claimed he was unaware of demolition works but assured the hotel would look better after being rebuilt in the same designs.

“I think by means of technology it would appear more elegant …,” Askary said.

In 2005, he said, there were 637 buildings on Bandung’s cultural heritage list but the number was cut to only 153 following a debate on a 2006 local ordinance on heritage building protection.

He said the government decided to scratch many historic places with similar architecture off the list due to limited funds.

The ordinance offered three alternatives — historic building owners who could afford to bear maintenance costs would be fully responsible for their properties; those who had less financial resources could share half of the repair costs with the government; and those who could not afford to preserve their properties would have the costs covered by the government.

The prolonged debate, unfortunately, has hampered Hotel Surabaya’s facelift.

It seems history alone is not enough to enhance the “prestige” of Hotel Surabaya. To save this heritage building, “cosmetics” are apparently necessary to boost its beauty and attract more visitors.