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A hospital and hidden gem

Hua Xiahong first discovered the Large Building in Hsiai Lane from a set of blueprints published in an architectural journal of the 1930s. Collecting archival material for a study of Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec, she found this well-designed, well-preserved and little-known Hudec piece in a deep lane close to bustling Nanjing Road W.

"The blueprints revealed a delicate eclectic building, but the real one was even better than the design," says the architectural historian of her first visit some 10 years ago.

"This beautiful building was in rich Spanish style with added eclectic elements," says Hua who now teaches at Tongji University. "It was hidden inside the lane and green ivy climbed all over the walls up to the third floor. The garden was nice and quiet. Among a rainbow of spiral columns and Spanish arches, I was surprised to find Chinese lucky patterns on the iron cover of the heating units, such as "five bats" (meaning five lucky things). Chinese elements were very rare in Hudec's works."

Hudec was a legend who escaped to Shanghai in 1918 while being transported to a Siberian prison camp. He designed more than 60 buildings in Shanghai in the 1920s-30s.

Compared with his other famous buildings like the Park Hotel, this one is quite unknown and today used as Gonghui Hospital under the management of the Shanghai Labor Union to serve low-income patients.

But this giant three-story, 2,000-square-meter building was designed in 1931 to serve as the private residence of a wealthy Chinese family surnamed Woo.

"In the early 1930s Hudec had already started to design contemporary buildings like the Grand Theater. I guess the classic style with added Chinese elements accorded with the request of his client, a wealthy Chinese whose identity is still unknown," says Hua.

Back in 1995, hospital employee Xie Xiaofang happened to meet several descendants of the family.

"They were all in their 80s and came from the United States to see their former home," Xie says. "They recalled their childhood days in this big house such as sliding down the railing of the spiral staircase for fun."

Hua revisited the house last year but found the red-brick walls had been washed too clean and had lost their patina of age.

When I visited recently on a hot July afternoon, the walls were fairly clean. Although it might not look as weathered and historic as it did 10 years go when Hua first saw it and although the hospital atmosphere unsettled me, I was still touched by its impeccable beauty.

Tucked away in a deep lane and hidden behind the clinic hall, the large building appeared to be colossal but not aggressive. Green ivy and even (artificial) green grapes are still there, twining around the red-brick walls in a romantic way.

Behind the interesting shapes of doors and windows, white-uniformed doctors are talking with patients. There's also a thick herbal smell lingering in the garden coming from the traditional Chinese medicine treatment rooms.

According to the book "Hudec's Architecture in Shanghai" (2008), the facade is composed of typical Spanish architectural elements, such as Spanish roof tiles, open loggia, spiral columns and cast iron railings.

The interior is luxurious and East-meets-West, or East and West.

The eastern part of this complicated structure house is very Western classic. The centerpiece, the gorgeously curved staircase, reminds me of other Hudec works, such as Ho Tung's Residence, which I introduced in this column two months ago.

The flooring on the three floors is of different colors and materials to offer aesthetic variety: black-and-white marble on the first, yellow-and-blackterrazzo on the second and black-and-white mosaic tiles on the third.

But the western part of the house contains several very Chinese rooms decorated with stunningly exquisite wooden carvings all over the floors and walls. In the past one room was probably used as a Buddhist shrine.

As one of the very few Hudec experts, Hua had an impression of this man as "a traditional and professional architect who always put his clients in mind ."

"He was not the very avant-garde kind. Although he had great talents and great techniques, he never forced his clients to accept his own styles and he always paid attention to the practical side of construction," says Hua. "He was not the kind who wanted to surprise the world and be named in the architectural history. That's why he designed this classic building while he could design a contemporary one like the Grand Theater.

"It was not and still isn't a listed historical building, so little attention had been paid to it over the years. And that has made it uncharted and very unique. When I first visited it, I sort of felt I had found a gem," says Hua.

And I shared that feeling as I walked through July's hot sunlight, passed through a clinic full of patients and finally stood in the middle of the garden surrounded by Spanish columns, green ivy and the strong smell of Chinese herbs.

No city in China has such a short and vivid history as Shanghai, so colorful, condensed, breathtaking, so East-meets-West. Shanghai has grown from a place of narrow streets to a boom city today in less than 200 years.

On the surface, Shanghai's history has vanished and made room for skyscrapers. But inside and often concealed in the depth of lanes and gardens, thousands of old buildings are telling yesterday's stories in a silent way. That's the charm of our city.

Unlike my previous Shanghai Daily column "History Revisited" years ago about famous old houses, this new biweekly column focuses on old buildings that are not known to the masses. All about the hidden beauties and the untold stories.

For each house featured in this column, I paid a visit. It's exciting to revisit these buildings, find traces of their past like a CSI investigator and put into words the fascinating, forgotten past.

I also suggest you visit some of them in nice weather, or at least cast a long glance at them when you pass by.

To me, old houses sprinkled around the city are like the broken ceramic tiles that adorn Gaudi's Guell Park in Barcelona.

They are small broken pieces, but together they make up a compelling, grand picture of the city's vivid history, bit by bit telling us how our city has grown from an unknown narrow-street town to what it is today in such a short period of time.


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