From 1823 onwards, for some six decades the Governors-General and later Viceroys of India had shuttled from one unsuitable residence to another during their summer sojourns in Shimla. It was Lord Lytton (1876-80), who chose Observatory Hill for constructing the building that was to be the final Viceregal address in town. The hill derives its name from Observatory House which was built in 1840 by Captain J. T. Boileau. In time, Observatory House became the residence of the Viceroy's Private Secretary. Observatory Hill is a watershed which stands figuratively astride India. The waters from one side of the hill flow down to the Bay of Bengal, and the wash from the other heads towards the Arabian Sea.
The first designs for the new Viceregal residence were prepared by Captain H. H. Cole of the Royal Engineers. These were presented before the workaholic Viceroy, Lord Lytton at the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition of 1878. It was Lord Dufferin (1884-88), however, who took great personal interest in the matter. He persuaded the Secretary of State for India, Lord Randolph Churchill, to sanction the project that was finally to cost thirty-eight lakh rupees. The annual upkeep of the estate was estimated to be one and a half lakh rupees.
To breathe life into the Viceregal vision, Henry Irwin was appointed architect and chief superintendent of works. F. B. Hebbert and L. M. St. Clair were associated as executive engineers. With them were three assistant engineers - A. Scott, T. Macpherson and T. English. The overall plan of the Lodge was suggested by Lord Dufferin, who repeatedly examined and modified the drawings. The machinery of the Public Works Department was placed in high gear and work on the site began in 1886. The top of Observatory Hill was leveled out to create a wide plateau. But this also revealed a surface of crushed shale that was 'fissured and cracked in every direction'. To remedy this, concrete was liberally used so as to create a strong base for the foundations. The structure that finally rose had a style of architecture that drew inspiration from the 'English Renaissance'. Yet it also overwhelmingly reflects elements of the castles of the Scottish highlands. The building is of light blue-grey stone masonry with tiled pitch roofing.
Lord and Lady Dufferin moved into the building on 23 July 1888. It was the newly installed electric lighting in particular that Lady Dufferin found a pleasure. A fortnight later, the Dufferins gave their first entertainment. Sixty-six people sat down for dinner at the table, and while the electric light was enough, candelabra were used to ornament the table. And the large dimensions of the new building could host over 800 guests that were to attend state balls in the coming years.
The Viceregal Lodge was now almost complete, though some construction continued till September 1888. Minor works were, nevertheless, to continue for a much longer time as the hurried construction schedule followed by Lord Duffferin had left numerous defects. Embellished with wrought stone-work, the main block has three storeys and the kitchen wing has five. A tower strikes above the rest of the building and its height was increased during Lord Curzon's tenure (1899-1905). In Lord Irwin's time (1926-31), a public entry building was added in 1927. By this date the character of the building was formed and remains to the present day.
In so far as the interior is concerned, it is the elaborate wood-work that has stood the real test of time. Along with the paneling and pilasters, the staircase with its heavy newels and handrails is remarkable. A massive shipment of teak was procured from Burma for this purpose and supplemented, wherever required, by local cedar wood (deodar) and walnut. During the time of Marquis Curzon, many parts of the building came in for major refurbishing. The carving in the dining room was completed, and a replica of the screen that stood behind the Emperor of China's throne was added. In the old Council Chamber, that later became the billiards room, portraits of every Governor-General and Viceroy were hung. A collection of Indian arms was displayed on the walls of the main gallery where their impressions are still visible.
The huge estate of 331 acres provided a splendid setting for the fancy fairs and garden parties. It was during the Viceroyalty of Lord Lansdowne that the colossal task of landscaping the lawns and grounds began but it continued during succeeding regimes. Though somewhat smaller today, the estate is still a princely 110 acres. The estate staff of 23 is now far fewer than the original 700. But the collection of rare and exotic plants and numerous grasses is as remarkable as ever. The glass-house is a little shrine for any gardening aesthete.
As the Second War drew to a close, India lay like a seething cauldron. On 14 June 1945, the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, in a radio broadcast, called for what was termed 'The Simla Conference'. This was designed 'to ease the present political situation and to advance India towards her goal of full self-government'. The Conference was to propose the reconstitution of the Viceroy's Executive Council. Except for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief, it was intended to be an entirely Indian Council with an equal numbers of Hindu and Muslim members. From 25 June to 14 July 1945 the Conference was held at the Lodge. A wide spectrum of Indian political leadership was present - Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Liaqat Ali Khan, Bhulabhai Desai, Master Tara Singh and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Though Mahatama Gandhi was present in Shimla throughout the Conference, he did not personally attend any of the sessions. The Conference staggered on, till everyone, including the Viceroy admitted its failure. What was perhaps the last chance for India to remain undivided was gone.
The War ended and in March 1946, a Cabinet Mission was sent to negotiate and work out the modalities by which power could finally be transferred to the Indians. A tripartite conference between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British took place at Viceregal Lodge from 5-12 May 1946. Once again, the Congress and the League failed to agree on many of the main issues, and the partition of India was now certain.
The Viceregal Estate passed into the hands of the President of India after Independence in 1947. The spectacular building was renamed 'Rashtrapati Nivas' (Presidential Residence) and came to be occupied by the President - if at all - for only a few days in a year.