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Couple sees potential in unrenovated lane house

THIS four-floor lane house hidden on Zhenning Road is nothing flashy - just simple and wholesome. But for Chloe Reuter and Oliver Tittmann, watching the family and friends enjoy spending time here has made it very special.

In 2009, when Reuter was pregnant with her second child, the couple wanted a house with space and character to accommodate their growing family.

"We wanted to live a real Shanghainese experience downtown,'' Reuter said. "The brief given to our faithful real estate agent was: an old house with over 250 square meters - charming, affordable and not renovated."

The agent came up with three landlords each owning a floor of a 1930s lane house tucked down a narrow, rather "colorful" lane, a rapidly disappearing feature of the former International Settlement.

When they first saw the house, the second and third floor kitchens were on stairwell landings; in effect a narrow wooden board with a home-rigged gas burner. The bathroom washbasin doubled as the kitchen sink. The bathrooms hadn't been changed since the 1930s, and fake walls divided most of the bedrooms.

"Many people thought we were raving mad to sign a lease on it," Reuter said.

Seeing the potential, they negotiated with the landlords, moved in and started to make the house theirs.

"It had a ton of potential: 3.5-meter-high ceilings on every floor; wide, spacious rooms, and abundant light compared to most Shanghai lane houses,'' she said.

Within only a month, they put in a kitchen, three bathrooms, changed all the window panes, redid the plumbing and part of the electricity, put in European-style radiators with a gas furnace, and repainted the entire house.

"We calibrated the quality of the renovation to hold up for the length of our five-year lease.''

Natural sunlight streams in from the large windows on three sides of the house, giving the home a light and airy feel.

Even on a grey day in the middle of winter, the ground-floor living room is not gloomy, a rare thing for a Shanghai lane house.

Wider than most

"The volumes and windows really make this house airy and special. There are no pokey little rooms and half floors. The house is also 5.2 meters wide, a bit wider than most lane houses, which means the rooms are not long and thin,'' Reuter said.

Once the shell was ready, the couple started to turn the house into a family home - one geared around the activities of their growing family members.

"Comfort and simplicity is key,'' Reuter said. So, they decided on clean pastel colors for the walls and grayish black doors. "Then we just filled it up with our furniture and collections."

The living room on the ground floor is laid out with dinner parties in mind, opening up to an outdoor dining area.

It is filled with Art Deco furniture, plenty of 1930s knickknacks. A stunning collection of antique Chinese ink stones on a side cabinet makes another focal point.

"We love Art Deco style and used to spend many hours sniffing around antiques and junk markets,'' Reuter said.

In Tittmann's bachelor days he used to stroll along the Fangbang Road markets on the weekends. Antique Chinese ink stones, old tape measures and various 1930s items all belong to their collections.

"We pick up bits in unusual places, usually outside Shanghai in villages which are being knocked down,'' she said. "We found one of our Art Deco sofas on the pavement on Wukang Road. We picked it up and had it reupholstered. Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to find nice pieces at a reasonable price, especially Art Deco furniture.''

Now, not only do the kids take up most of the couple's weekend time, but the house is overflowing with furniture.

"Our house in Moganshan has become a repository for the pieces we don't want anymore in Shanghai.''

The old staircase leads to the second floor where you find the family room and kids' room. "In our previous apartment, our living room ended up looking like a kindergarten.

"Here, we decided to transform the nicest room in the house into our family room, where toys have their place, we have our working desk, and on cold winter days, the room is cozy and warm,'' Reuter said.

"Also it is on the same floor as the kids' room, so if our son Orian wakes up early, he quietly walks over and plays on his own until the clock hits 7:30am.''

The couple chose blue for the kids' room as it is neutral and works well for their son and daughter, who share a bedroom.

"One of the bonuses of renting the house was that the landlord gave us whatever furniture we wanted to keep. We kept a few 1930s tables and nice club chairs. An old mahjong table serves as the changing table for our young daughter.''

The master bedroom sits on the third floor, facing south with two big windows. They transformed the hallway into a small bathroom for guests, put in a wall for an en-suite dressing room and punched a door through a wall for direct access to the master bathroom.

"The lane is gated off and all our neighbors are Shanghainese. They love our children and are always looking after them,'' Reuter said. "On a typical weekday morning, you can hear the 80-year-old ladies outside laughing away with our one-year-old daughter Eloise, as our son Orian cycles around and chats to everyone.''

Half British half Luxembourger, but born in Belgium, Reuter studied Chinese in Beijing. She has lived in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing and London, among other places.

Tittmann is part French, Belgian and American. He has lived in Shanghai for eight years.

"We plan to be in Shanghai for many years to come," Reuter said. "We really love it here.''


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