History of old Bund building revived in rare photos
By Michelle Qiao
THE former British Consul General’s house in Shanghai was an unattractive cement building sprinkled with tiny beds and implements of punishment when project manager Yang Lei first surveyed it for renovation 10 years ago.
“It looked really odd but after the cement was peeled off, brickwork walls emerged which were stunningly beautiful,” recalls Yang from Shanghai Bund Investment (Group) Co.
The building, which opened two years ago as Maison Patek Philippe after renovation, is now exhibiting historic photos of its rarely told history.
According to F.L. Hawks Pott’s “A Short History of Shanghai” (1928), the first British Consul General in Shanghai, George Balfour, purchased the property in 1846. It was situated in a splendid location north of the settlement for the erection of a consular office. His successor, Rutherford Alcock, proceeded with the matter after Balfour resigned and moved the consular office from the Old Town area to the Bund in 1849.
The first consulate building soon collapsed and the second was destroyed by fire on December 23, 1870. The third one, built in 1872, has survived at No. 1 Waitanyuan and is a high-end venue for meetings and events.
An array of other consular buildings, including this consul general’s house, vice consul general’s house and architect’s house, were scattered in the compound perching where Suzhou Creek flows into the Huangpu River.
British scholar Mark Bertram dates the history of the consul general’s house to 1871, which was not only older than the central consulate building, but also older than its estimated completion year — 1883, which was widely quoted by Chinese architectural books.
Bertram mapped an outline of the house’s origins from studying archival letters from the 1860s to the 1870s among Sir Rutherford Alcock, British minister in Beijing, Consul Walter Medhurst in Shanghai, Secretary of State Earl Granville in London and two officials responsible for consular building activities, Major William Crossman and surveyor Robert Boyce.
It was Crossman’s recommendation in 1867 for building the consul general’s house at the north end of the compound, which was later accepted by London and built by Boyce in 1869.
When the 1870 fire destroyed the central consulate building, the new house was nearly complete and luckily unaffected. The consul, who was living in the vice consul’s house to the south of the central building before, took it up as his new residence in early 1871.
The scholar’s conclusion is proved by a report in the North China Daily News on June 3, 1872, which records the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the central building:
“The accompany (mainly from HBM Supreme Court and Consulate) assembled in the new house which had been lately built as a residence for the British consul; and adjourned when all was declared ready, to the spot where the ceremony was to be performed.”
When the ceremony was completed, “At Mr Boyce’s invitation, the party then adjourned to luncheon, which had been laid out in the consular residence.”
“After this very pleasant portion of the ceremony was over,” attendants proposed toasts and drank to the prosperity of the new consulate.
“These new findings are highly meaningful to our city’s architectural history. If the former consul general’s house was built in 1871, it would replace the consulate building as the oldest surviving waterfront building on the Bund,” says Professor Qian Zonghao of Tongji University, a famous Shanghai architectural historian.
According to Chinese scholar Wang Fang’s 2011 book “Study of Waitanyuan,” the detached house was quite a functional home, featuring a dining room, a drawing room, a study room, a kitchen, a washhouse and a stable on the ground floor and three bedrooms on the second floor.
After 1949, the building remained vacant for years and was later used as a kindergarten attached to a state-owned organization. It may also have been adapted as a set depicting “a Kuomintang prison” for shooting movies themed in old Shanghai. That’s why manager Yang saw the bizarre combination of small beds, mini toilets and scary instruments for torture in one house.
“Its brickwork walls are even more delicate than the central consulate building, which revealed the consul’s attention to his domestic life,” Yang says.
His team tried painstakingly to revive the nice walls made of red and grey bricks, which had been intentionally scratched by knifes just to “make them rough and stick better with the covering cement.” Some heritage buildings on the Bund have suffered the same fate when there was a tendency to cover the bricked walls with cement or paint during the 1980s.
They removed the cement entirely but maintained many of the scratches as they were also “traces of real history.”
Mark Bertram’s 2011 book “Room For Diplomacy” details the expertise of the brickwork:
“Bungalows, like barrack blocks and prisons, were researched and refined by royal engineers on their construction courses at Chatham, with special emphasis on designing against the spread of disease. Crossman and Boyce were therefore familiar with the form when they arrived on the China coast, and they developed their consulate designs, and particularly their use of brickwork, from ‘classical’ bungalow precedents. Their consulates were generally of brick, on two floors, sited in walled compounds of a few acres that also included single-story offices, local staff quarters and outbuildings.”
The zigzagging colonnade linking the house to the consulate building and stone floriations on the corner were also restored.
According to the original interior structure, Gerdi Stern, mother of Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern, decorated the house in a proper, elegant style, turning yesterday’s diplomat’s home into a stylish flagship of this luxury watch brand from Switzerland.
The 60 photos on exhibit include collections from the National Archives in London, which were among the few remaining photos of the house’s early look, inside and out. Some interesting photos demonstrating the renovation process and the Bund’s vivacious past are also on display in this photography exhibition, named “Only Time” to celebrate the maison’s second anniversary.
During his first survey, Yang was also puzzled by the finding of an antique metal elevator, which was obviously unnecessary for a two-floor house. And it was so small that it would make a passenger very uncomfortable to travel in it. Afterwards he figured out that it was used for delivering meals to the upper floor.
“Unlike the central consulate building with high ceilings, the consul-general’s house is really refined and fit for a cozy family life in Shanghai,” Yang says.