The Stone Town is the product of at least three centuries of continuous settlement, but it was only from 1830 that Zanzibar took on a wholly urban character and that stone buildings were built in significant numbers. Until that time, the majority of houses were made of mud and wattle, and roofed with palm leaf thatch. Very few large-scale structures could be distinguished, besides the Fort and a few small mosques.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the town occupied only the north-eastern portion of the peninsula, extending from Shangani Point toward the creek's narrowest crossing at Darajani. After the Omani Sultan's permanent move to the island in 1832, the Stone Town quickly expanded during the middle of the century, filling in the areas of upper Sokomuhogo, Forodhani, Kajificheni, and Kiponda. The Omanis erected palaces and residences along and behind the sea front, and tradesmen from the Indian sub-continent built up the bazaar streets with shop-front houses, and sea-faring merchants built houses, sheds, and warehouses near the waterfront. After 1850, stone buildings spread further and began to extend north into Malindi, south into the lower portion of Sokomuhogo, and east to Mkunazini, areas which up to this time had been mostly occupied by mud buildings. As contact with western trading markets increased, particularly once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and later with the establishment of the British administration in 1890, specialised structures - larger civic buildings in particular - began to appear. The building up of the Stone Town was more or less completed and the present limits defined by the first quarter of the twentieth century: the new port area to the north had been reclaimed, the area south of Shangani built up, the European garden suburb of Vuga laid out, and the programme to fill the creek bordering the peninsula to the east gradually put into effect.
Thus, within the relatively short span of one hundred and fifty years, the confluence of several distinct cultures and the island's intense cosmopolitan development produced the rich and diverse architectural heritage we see today. In some cases, the diversity of the original imports is still evident in different sections of town; in others, the borrowing and adaptation of forms from other contexts produced a cross-fertilisation of different building traditions. In yet other cases, buildings were gradually transformed over time as newcomers adapted existing structures to their tastes and preferences, thus determining a further hybridisation of forms. This variety produced the diverse spaces and surprising contrasts of the Zanzibar townscape, where pedestrians move from the imposing row of sea front structures to the crowded and lively atmosphere of the Indian bazaars, and the quiet, intimate spaces of the narrower residential streets. Thus, although the different forms and building types and their origins - African, Arab, Indian, or European - can be recognised, it is the synthesis of these cultures and influences that creates Zanzibar's unique urban and architectural environment.
The Bharmal Building is located in the Malindi Quarter of Stone Town, originally standing on the edge of the creek that divided Stone Town from Ng'ambo. Today, the building stands on Creek Road, after the creek was gradually reclaimed between 1915 and 1960. It was originally built as the residence of a wealthy Indian merchant, Mohamedbhai Sheikh Hoosenbhai, then housed offices of the British administration, and today serves as the offices of the Zanzibar Municipal Council (ZMC).
Construction on the J.H. Sinclair-designed building began in 1922 and was completed in 1923, with the 1922 foundation date included in 2 windows. Though accounts vary, records show that the building was occupied by members of the owner's family soon after completion, but was rented to the British Colonial Administration Officers by the later part of the decade. The building, like many of those in Stone Town owned by wealthy Indian merchants, is of an Indian style with Arab and European influences, including Romanesque and Gothic elements. It is generally considered one of J.H. Sinclair's less-significant works and is possibly his first residential construction.
The two-story building is constructed of massive stone rubble walls, and was one of the few buildings in Stone Town originally roofed with clay tiles. It is whitewashed, likely its original color. The plan is a roughly symmetrical W-shape, with two wings coming off of a central entry. Nearly all of the decoration is concentrated on the front facade, including stucco ornament on the ground and first levels, with only windows for ornament on the other faces. There is a pavilion at the top center of the front facade, giving the building a palatial appearance, and matching gables on both ends of the building. The entrance door is an Indian-style Zanzibar door, with a Quranic inscription on the lintel above.
Before the building was partitioned for municipal use, the ground floor had 11 rooms, the largest of which now houses the municipal meeting chamber. The first floor is accessible via a wooden staircase that leads to a verandah overlooking a courtyard. The intricate, curved balustrades of the verandah, with Romanesque elements, are one of the notable architectural elements of the building. The first floor is also of interest for its locally-made mosaic tiles, made from broken chinaware and shaped into floral patterns and butterfly decorations.
Amour, Khalfan. Assessment Report: Consultancy for renovation of Zanzibar Municipal Council Building & Saateni Workshop. Zanzibar: Millennium Engineering and Construction Contractors Inc.: 2012. http://meccltd.com/Reports/Assessment_Report_Final.pdf [accessed October 20, 2014]
Sinclair, Dean. "Field Note: "Memorials More Enduring than Bronze": J. H. Sinclair and the Making of Zanzibar Stone Town." African Geographical Review 28, (March 2009): 71-97.