The Lyceum Building, erected in 1927 as an office, was actually named after the city’s first Western theater. The famous Lyceum Theater formerly stood just beside the site on Yuanmingyuan Road, behind the former British Consulate General in Shanghai.
It is said when the British started to settle in any location, they first set up a club, then a race course, a theater and a church.
That was quite true in Shanghai because they did build a club, a theater, a church and a race course in the Bund area or nearby.
Lyceum was their earliest theater, erected in 1867. According to architectural history researcher Wang Fang’s 2011 book “Study of Waitanyuan,” the history of Western drama in Shanghai dates back to the 1850s.
However, the earliest amateur actors, mainly British “Shanghailanders,” had to rent warehouses as temporary theaters.
The Amateur Dramatic Club of Shanghai (ADC) was founded in 1866 and opened the doors of the first Lyceum Theater in 1867.
Despite strong criticism during construction, the final result of the wooden theater was considered satisfactory.
“No one who saw the commencement of that timber bird-cage on the desecrated, once consular grounds, would have imagined that in two months it would have grown into the beautiful little theatre in which we sat last night,” reported North China Daily News on the theater’s opening performance on March 1, 1867.
It was a successful debut, and “every seat in the house was full before the last fiddle in the Orchestra had given its final premonitory scrape.”
Unfortunately the theater, which was “one of the best-planned and most commodious houses in the East,” was burnt to the ground toward the end of 1870.
It was more unfortunate that the wooden theater hadn’t been insured because insurance companies refused the risk of a wooden building with the poor water supply available at that time.
Despite great financial difficulties, the club made arrangements to open the second Lyceum Theater in 1874, which had an uninterrupted career for 55 years until it was closed in 1929.
The theater was suffering from decay and the club was losing money trying to keep the old theater going.
With a suitable, reasonably priced site offered by Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Land Company and free sketch plans by Davies and Brookes, the third Lyceum opened in 1931 at the crossroads of today’s Maoming and Changle roads, near the land company’s Cathay Mansions (today’s northern building of the Jin Jiang Hotel.)
At the opening ceremony for the newly built Lyceum, which is still capable of staging drama today, the club’s vice president, JF Brenan, said he believed the theater proved Shanghai could appreciate more serious arts as there were untrue impressions of the city transmitted by some short-time visitors who hoped to find wickedness and write a book about it.
“The reproach is sometimes leveled at Shanghai that it is a soulless place where the inhabitants spend their days in chasing the dollar and their nights in the pursuit of pleasures other than ‘highbrow.’ The arts and graces of life, it is said, are ignored, and the people are sunk deep in a combination of commercialism and frivolity, or worse,” he said in the opening speech.
Researcher Wang also compared cultural exchanges in the history of the three Lyceums.
“In the time of the first wooden Lyceum, Chinese and Westerners were hindered by language and opposed to each other. As the second Lyceum opened in 1874, the news was reported by Chinese newspapers and soon after Chinese and Western actors performed Peking Opera on one stage. The theater also attracted Chinese intellectuals who were amazed by the form of Western dramas. Gradually the theater became a medium to import Western cultures, which ‘mildly but deeply’ changed Chinese lives,” Wang notes.
The 2011 book “The Public Space of Modern Shanghai (1843-1949)” published a vivid childhood memory written by a Shanghainese in 1991. He had visited the third Lyceum Theater in what was the French concession during World War II.
“Led by my mum, we walked through the Lyceum’s extravagant passage and entered the entrance covered by scarlet velvet curtains. I was overwhelmed by a warm, aromatic air. The stage was illuminated as bright as daylight and playwright Cao Yu’s ‘Peking Man’ was showing ... Mother was not interested so we only stayed for a short while. But the glimpse of the brightness and stage scene was so impressive that I could never forget it the rest of my life.”
The building named “Lyceum”
Compared with the legendary Lyceum Theater, the brown-walled Lyceum Building on Yuanmingyuan Road has a much simpler resume.
The seven-story steel-and-concrete structure reveals a modern style with Neoclassic decorations, such as Ionic columns and elegant gables. The simple-cut façade is fully covered by brown tiles.
The building was designed by a leading firm, Atkinson & Dallas, which had also designed No. 7 and No. 29 on the Bund.
When researching Waitanyuan heritage buildings years ago, architect Lin Yun from Shanghai Zhang Ming Architectural Design Firm found an interesting harmony between the Lyceum Building and its neighboring Mission Building (169 Yuanmingyuan Rd).
“Although designed by two different firms, the architects obviously had considered the unity of neighboring buildings, which have almost the same floor height and thus give a pleasant, neat look. It also shows the then Shanghai Municipal Council had paid attention to the city streets in the urban planning work,” Lin says.
“The two-span Lyceum Building has a nice proportion,” he adds.
A galaxy of big enterprises and organizations, including Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the then Shanghai branch of the Nanjing Kuomintang government’s foreign ministry, rented offices inside this well-designed building.
Today a Lyceum Cafe opens at the ground floor while the higher floors are used by Rockbund, the developer for the North Bund area, as their offices.
The theater and its golden times have long gone away, but the name “Lyceum” remains on this Bund building as a reminder of the efforts to build a lyceum for Western cultures for the city of Shanghai.
Yesterday: The Lyceum Building
Today: The Lyceum Building (of Rockbund)
Address: 185 Yuanmingyuan Rd
Built: In 1927
Architectural style: Modern style with Neoclassic decorations
Architect: Atkinson & Dallas
Tips: You may drop by the Lyceum Café for a drink or visit the third “Lyceum” at the crossroad of Changle and Maoming roads, which operates as the state-owned Lyceum Theater.