No. 19: Fairytale Palace Hotel a magnet for rich and powerful
By Michelle Qiao
The old Palace Hotel was a luxurious gathering place for China's elite and the venue for Dr Sun Yat-sen's grand election victory banquet in 1911. Michelle Qiao reports on its transformation.
Faced with red-and-white bricks, No. 19 on the Bund looks like a palace from a fairytale, perched on the corner of Nanjing Road E. and the Bund. And a century ago it was the Palace Hotel.
Widely known for decades as the Peace Hotel South Building, No. 19 has a much longer history than the Peace Hotel building that opened in 1929 as Sassoon House.
Designed by British architect Walter Scott and finally erected in 1908, the Palace Hotel was constructed on the site of the even older Central Hotel, built in 1875. A variety of different window shapes were created for different floors, including semi-circular arches, diminished arches and pointed arches.
The entrance gate on Nanjing Road E. is tall and grand, graced by exquisite carvings and a period revolving door.
The six-story Palace Hotel used to be one of the largest, tallest and most commodious hotels in China.
"The hotel with a red-brick facade had been vaguely defined as 'Renaissance' but it was obvious a Victorian colonial style," says famous Shanghainese architect Yu Ting who has researched the city's historic hotels.
"In my opinion, this history-rich hotel sort of lost its glory after becoming only the South Building of the Peace Hotel. It's rarely known today that the Palace Hotel used to be an important venue for gatherings of Chinese elite in the International Settlement before 1949."
He is right. In 1911 Dr Sun Yat-sen hosted his great banquet for 100 guests at the hotel to celebrate his victory in the presidential election. Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling held their engagement reception on the top floor in 1927.
The hotel was also the venue of the 1909 International Opium Commission meeting, marking one of the first steps toward banning the trade in opium.
Aiming to compete with the world's best hotels, the Palace Hotel had 120 rooms, a 300-seat dining room, a 200-seat banquet hall and a famous roof garden.
It had city's first elevator, an Otis elevator, installed in 1907.
The grand hotel was also famous for an elaborate roof garden, with a Baroque tower, a pair of cupolas and artificial lawn. Green vines wound around the railings.
"It was the city's first roof garden which offered a bird's-eye view of the city as well as the countryside opposite the Huangpu River," says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao. "While sipping a glass of whisky on ice, customers could admire the music from the Municipal Orchestra concerts in the Public Garden during summer weekends. The music was clear and almost filtered out the street noise. On a winter afternoon, they could drink hot coffee under warm sunlight while appreciating the river scene."
Unfortunately, a fire that started on this rooftop on August 15, 1912 changed the fate of the prominent hotel. According to the North China Daily News, the fire raged for more than an hour, causing "considerable excitement in the center of the Settlement."
The fire broke out in the northwest corner of the roof in the ornamental cupola, which was close to the chimney of the kitchen.
"It is thought that sparks from this (chimney) had ignited the woodwork under the eaves, and thus set the place up in smoke and flame," the paper reported.
Though damage was not severe to the hotel itself, the fire damaged the reputation of the Palace Hotel, which lost clientele to the new building of the nearby Astor House Hotel. The hotel had some good times in the late 1910s and 1920s but later suffered from the competition with modern "skyscraper" hotels, such as the neighboring Cathay Hotel at No. 20 and the Park Hotel near the former Race Course.
Huangpu District Archives indicate the building was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and used by several state-owned organizations after 1949. In 1965 it reopened as the Peace Hotel South Building.
'Artist in Residence' program
The past glory of the Palace Hotel was almost forgotten. However, a renovation completed in 2010 transformed the old-fashioned No. 19 into the new-concept Swatch Art Peace Hotel.
The ground and first floors feature flagship shops of the Swatch Group and a spacious hall showcasing watch-themed exhibitions. The top three floors were turned into a luxury boutique hotel with large, creatively designed suites, a function room and chic restaurants.
In between dazzling watches and fancy suites, the middle two floors contribute to an "Artist in Residence" program. Each year, as many as 40-50 artists from around the world are offered a stay on the Bund for months free of charge. Each receives a room and separate studio.
"I love to have breakfast in the kitchen, watching the boats on the river. The ambience is so comfortable," says Spanish contemporary artist Juan Antonio Banos, who stayed in the hotel starting last July.
An exhibition of his colorful paintings created on the Bund is underway at M50, an artists' hub at 50 Moganshan Road. Subjects include Chinese Buddhas, pandas and lanterns.
"It's very quiet and I can concentrate on my creations," Banos says. "The Oriental Pearl TV Tower on the other side of the river, the flashes of cameras on the Nanjing Road just outside the window and all the lights of nighttime Shanghai gave me inspiration."
The 2010 renovation changed the layout but retained the dark-toned wooden staircase. The original interior gray-brick walls and columns are exposed. There's a post-modern feel to the space.
The famous roof garden opens from April to November every year. The Baroque tower has been transformed into a cigar bar while one of the two cupolas is now a dining room. The other cupola, which was destroyed by fire, was not rebuilt.
Today No. 19 still bears the inscription "1906" above the main entrance on Nanjing Road, 1906 being the scheduled completion date.
No. 19 is also one of the only two remaining red-brick waterfront buildings, No. 9 being the other, both standing out along the gray stone structures along the Bund. The two buildings are among the oldest.
Despite ups and downs during the past century, the red brick "Palace" is now a red-hot highlight that enlivens the gray skyline of the Bund.
Yesterday: The Palace Hotel
Present: The Swatch Art Peace Hotel
Address: 19 Zhongshan Rd E1
Completed: In 1908
Style: Victorian colonial
Designer: Walter Scott
Tips: The hotel is open to the public. I would recommend climbing the antique staircase to appreciate the exhibition room featuring exposed original walls and columns. Or have a drink on the roof garden when it's open.