The Mediterranean style villa at 390 Wukang Road was once the home of Italian Consul General Luigi Neyrone during the 1930s. It was widely assumed that the house was built to his wishes, but that was not the case.
According to “Shanghai Directory,” Neyrone moved into the house in 1936, years after it was built in the late 1920s. It was originally owned by Lewis R. Andrews. “Andrews was a partner with the foreign exchange brokerage Wentworth, Andrews & Giese, which was located on Jiujiang Road,” Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao says. “Records from 1936 show that Andrews and his wife had moved from the French Concession to 465 Hongqiao Road. Maybe they wanted to live in a cheaper place or perhaps they wanted a quieter home since Hongqiao was countryside at that time.”
Covering an area of 420 square meters, the Wukang Road house stands out with its snow-white walls, dark wooden beams and red-tiled roof. The brick-and-wood building is shaped like a huge fan and features seven arches in the front. An artful colonnade caresses the eastern, western and southern facades, offering nice views of the lush garden. The southern façade has a small, white balcony with a curved gable and dormer stretching out from the red-tiled roof.
The building is now used by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation to host international meetings. In the 1980s, SAIC used the villa as an office. Negotiations between SAIC and Germany-based Volkswagen were held in the villa, eventually leading to a deal that allowed Santana vehicles to be produced in China.
The villa’s interior was renovated in 2003 to make it look more like a commercial meeting center.
“The 1936 record noted Consul General Luigi Neyrone worked in the Italian Consulate on Bubbling Well Road, which was later torn down to make way for the elevated highway. The former site should be on the corner of Nanjing and Chengdu roads,” Qian adds.
Nico Howson, whose grandparents were friends with the Andrews, knows some stories about the people who mingled in the couple’s social circle.
“Mrs Andrews was my mother’s godmother. My grandfather Piero Gino Calcina was Italian,” Howson says. “He and my grandmother Marlys Calcina were friends of Count Ciano from Italy, who married Mussolini’s daughter Edda Mussolini (when Ciano was Minister to the Nanking government but lived in Shanghai) although my grandfather came out against the Fascists.”
In 1938, Mr and Mrs Raymond S. Kin moved into the house. The Andrews moved back into the villa in 1939, but they didn’t stay long. Ownership of the house changed to A. Sadoe in 1941, according to “Shanghai Directory.”
Howson says after World War II the Andrews moved to a historic house called Tulip Hill in Maryland, USA.
Mr and Mrs Francisco Bonachea Romero from the Cuban Legation and Cuban Consulate had lived at 378 Ferguson Lane, just across the street of the Italian Consul General’s residence. The Romeros lived in the former house of Chinese financier Pei Tsuyee, father of famous architect I.M. Pei.
The regeneration of Wukang Road won a state-level award for excellence in urban planning and it was named a “national historical and cultural street.”
The project’s chief designer, Tongji University professor Sha Yongjie, said the idea of not making wholesale changes to a neighborhood was a new urban planning concept in China.
The project kicked off in 2007 and was completed in 2010. It was regarded as the city’s first attempt to revitalize a historical street.
The project resulted from the city’s groundbreaking 2005 plan to establish 12 historical areas and 144 historical streets in downtown Shanghai. The 144 streets include 64 that will never be widened in order to preserve their original appearance and the old buildings flanking the roads. As one of the 64 streets selected, Wukang Road was the first to be revamped because it was a straight-forward residential street.
When Sha first took the job he found many eyesores like electric wires, dustbins, milk boxes on walls, roadside shops and signage that were not being managed properly by the local urban planning bureau that commissioned the project.
“These elements detract from the street’s appearance,” Sha said. “So the project wasn’t just a matter of traditional urban planning, but also a matter of refined city management.”
Sha had to coordinate with more than 10 municipal, district or community-level governments to improve numerous small details. This included adding roadside trees, burying wires, replacing dustbins, removing ugly shop signs and condom vending machines that were in front of historical buildings.
He was especially impressed with some community-level officials, who helped convince residents of the project’s benefits. The cooperation of residents helped the project go smoothly. In earlier regeneration projects, residents were often compelled to move out from old homes.
“We listened to their requirements and advice,” Sha said. “And with our professional guidance and a little more budget, the result was so much better and the residents were satisfied.”
“Take Lane No. 400 for example, we readjusted green plants, added chairs and lights in public space and repaired the drainage system. The residents were so happy that they then helped us persuade a neighbor to clean up his stuff that occupied some public space,” he added.
For a variety of designs, the chief designer organized a team of several young architectural faculties from Tongji University. Each scholar/architect was assigned to design a gate or two, or a section of surrounding walls. Sha supervised the designs to ensure they suited the character of Wukang Road.
In addition, Sha’s team also replaced the metal facades of some 1980s buildings with stone walls or bamboo fences to match the old villas.
After the project, Wukang Road’s popularity soared. Trendy restaurants and cafes popped up on both sides of the street. The project was praised as “achieving a great effect without costing a fortune compared with other renovation projects.”
It proved so successful that the Xuhui District government plans to apply “the Wukang Road model” to other historical streets. There are also plans to convert historical buildings into museums near Wukang Road.
“We made some small, proper changes and luckily few mistakes,” Sha said. “We did a small thing, but it was well-done.”
Jiao Tong University Professor Wang Lin, former vice director of the Architectural Preservation Committee of the Shanghai Architectural Society, said the project was well executed.
“Wukang Road looks more beautiful than ever, but people think nothing has been done here,” Wang said. “Then it seems as though something has been done to improve the atmosphere of the road, but without ‘upside down changes,’ which we historical preservationists fear most.”
“Famous Tongji University professor Luo Xiaowei had criticized the phenomenon of urban planners or architects who always wanted to ‘leave their mark’ on a project, just like the Monkey King’s habit of leaving his urine in the places he visits,” joked Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, co-author of the book “Shanghai Wukang Road.”
“With a historical building or neighborhood, all you have to do is fully understand it and then carefully restore it,” Qian said. “No marks, that’s all.”