THE first time that architect Zhang Ming stepped into the Holy Trinity Church was more than half a century ago. Now the 84-year-old woman, an architectural maestro, has completed a restoration of this oldest-surviving Christian church in Shanghai, which last month hosted its first service in decades and is scheduled to open in the near future.
“It was such an exquisite building,” recalls Zhang, who surveyed the Huangpu District church when heading Shanghai’s first research on modern historic buildings in the early 1960s.
“Bricks were so neatly and beautifully laid. Architectural details were abundant. I remember every seat had a Bible and a small staircase led up to the sermon stage. It’s incredible that the church was supported by 8,000 wooden piles. It’s a pity that I only took black-and-white photos,” she says.
A 1902 book, “Shanghai By Night And Day,” gave an account of the church’s history. The earliest British community in Shanghai, about 100 residents who included only seven women, initially worshiped at the British Consulate General. Then “a church was built, so badly built that within a very short time, as the result of an abnormal rainstorm, the roof fell in, and the repairs ran into more money than the original structure.”
Afterward, “the greatest Gothic designer of his day,” Sir Gilbert Scott from the UK, was commissioned to draw plans for the new church, which was modified by local architect William Kidner.
Roman and Gothic in design, the church built in 1869 has a nave, two transepts, two aisles and a chancel. In 1875, it received a big honor from Queen Victoria and became the Cathedral of the Diocese of North China, which was directly under the supervision of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“At that time it was a church of the highest rank in the Far East and also one of the most beautiful buildings in Shanghai,” Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling says in his book “The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times.”
The book also lists several masterpieces of architect Scott, ranging from St Giles Camberwell Church in London, Exeter College Oxford, the Foreign Office of London’s White Hall to St Pancras Hotel and Station Block.
The colonnades, red bricks and the clock tower are three noteworthy characters of the church, according to Zhou Jin, a PhD researcher on Shanghai Christian architecture.
“Most early buildings in Shanghai’s settlement were built in colonial veranda style, a form Westerners implanted from South Asia and later found unfit for Shanghai’s weather. Trinity Church was a precious existing example of that style, after which local churches generally had ‘one skin’ with no colonnade surrounding it, no matter in Roman or Gothic styles,” says Zhou, who admires the dazzling lights and shadows on the façade created by the colonnade that encircles the Trinity Church.
He also says the architect’s use of red bricks was done “in a pure way,” as even the arches and small architraves on the façade are made of red bricks instead of stones. That’s why it was once called the “Red Church.”
In 1893, a steep clock tower in Gothic style was added to the northeast side, which featured a big pointed roof in the middle with four smaller ones at the four corners.
Zhou regards it as a luxury to build an independent clock tower aside a church in downtown Shanghai because land prices were soaring so fast after the city opened port in 1843.
“In later years, clock towers were usually on both sides of the façade, tightly close to the side of the main church, or there was no clock tower at all,” Zhou says. “The Trinity Church had secured a big site in very early times so it allowed ample space for erecting a clock tower in 1893.”
He adds that even the small garden on the crossroads of Jiujiang and Jiangxi Roads today formerly belonged to the garden of the church.
These unique architectural features have made Trinity Church stand out from the city’s galaxy of Christian buildings but at the same time brought difficulties on the restoration work of architect Zhang.
Her team used a lifting jack to correct the column underneath a gorgeous bricked arch at the entrance, carefully cleaned and repaired each piece of red brick, which are much wider than today’s standard ones, and remade flooring ceramic tiles according to original patterns found on a few surviving ones.
Zhou’s research shows the church lacked proper maintenance since the Pacific War broke out in 1941. Unable to pay a big sum of property tax, British owners gave the church to the Shanghai government, which ran it as a joint venue for Christian services of the Huangpu District after 1949.
When the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) broke out, the church was severely damaged and even the clock tower was pulled down by the Red Guards.
In the 1980s, a mezzanine was added to the church, and it became offices of the district government until in 2005 it was finally returned to two Chinese Christian organizations.
The National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Church in China and the China Christian Council moved into the 4-story office building aside the church at 169 Yuanmingyuan Road and started the plan to open the church to visitors after restoration.
The tall and steep clock tower was a big challenge for experienced architect Zhang, whose own firm had repaired many of the city’s signature heritage buildings, including the Shanghai Concert Hall, the Moller House, the Grand Theatre and the Xujiahui Cathedral, to name just a few.
When rebuilding the tower for Trinity Church, Zhang borrowed her experience when repairing the Gothic clock tower of the Xujiahui Cathedral.
“I adapted tinplates as waterproof material onto the core steel structure, which I had also used for the tower of Xujiahui Cathedral. The tinplates were so soft that they could wrap the sharp points up so fittingly that they resembled the clothes people wore to shield X-rays,” Zhang says.
“It’s incredible that many parts are functional and in good shape and it’s been more than 100 years! The tiles are still with the original waterproof layers,” she adds. “And it was surprisingly beautiful. I had climbed along the scaffolding onto the dome and found the ceiling in a dark blue tone painted with golden stars, flowers and grasses.”
Perhaps that’s why researcher Zhou puts the church into a special category. At the end of his doctoral dissertation, he picked only two from the city’s many churches to be nominated as a National Cultural Heritage. They are the Xujiahui Cathedral and the Holy Trinity Church.
“Many Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Ningbo, all had churches listed as National Cultural Heritage. Shanghai, a city boasting of China’s most and best Christian churches, hadn’t one listed yet by then. Soon the Xujiahui Cathedral won the title but not yet for our ‘Red Church’,” he says.
The result of Zhang’s 1960s survey was not published until 1985, owing to the cultural revolution. The book named “Shanghai Modern Architectural History” showcased nearly ten black-and-white photos taken by Zhang when she entered the church more than half a century ago.
This architect may never have imagined that she would one day enter the church again, even climb onto the ceiling and revive those exquisite details captured by her camera more than 50 years ago.
Address: 219 Jiujiang Rd
Tips: The church plans to open for services during weekends and for general visitors during weekdays. The time is undecided.
The 1902 book “Shanghai By Night And Day” also gave a succinct account of the history of the stained glass windows on the church.
“That at the back of the organ carries a more pathetic tone with it, being ‘the tribute of a mother’s love in fond memory of Henry Vernon Prichard, R.N., Sub-Lieut., H.M.S. Cockchafer.’ In the south aisle, there is a window in memory of Robt. Reid, M.P.; another commemorating the Hong Kong Crickets who went down in the ill-fated Bokhara, 10th Oct., 1892. This was erected by members of the Shanghai Cricket Club; and a third to the memory of Robert Forrester Thorburn, secretary to the Council, 1878-1897.
“In the north aisle there are four windows, two to private individuals who have died within recent years, one to James Thomson Brand, and the fourth to Miss Lydia Fay, well known in bygone days as a missionary-teacher in connection with the American Episcopal Mission. The last of the stained-glass windows is perhaps the finest of them all. It is over the entrance at the east end and was erected in memory of Edward Lawrance, who died in 1867.”
The article also said the newer glass was “quieter in color as a rule than in the earlier windows. To view these latter at their best, it is necessary to see them when the shades of evening have somewhat lessened the powers of the sun’s bright rays. In full noonday light, their colors in several instances are far too glaring and strongly contrasted. Besides memorial windows there are mural tablets in stone and brass to many residents of early days. These are at present in the porch, but there is no reason why the interior of the building should not be so ‘ornamented’ as time goes on.”
It’s a pity that all the original stained glass windows were demolished during the “cultural revolution” and had to be replaced with plain windows during the restoration owing to the budget. The exceptions were several stained glasses reproduced with overseas donations. The church is still waiting for further donations to revive more stained glass windows.