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January 19, 2019

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Apartments stand testament to a millionaire’s passion for sports

THE Denis Apartments perches around a prominent corner of the former Carter and Bubbling Well roads (Shimen Rd No. 2 and Nanjing Rd W.). Completed in 1930, it is named after a Chinese millionaire who was passionate about sports.

“Both Denis Apartments and the Yates Apartments opposite Nanjing Road W. mirrored those 1930s apartments built in New York’s Manhattan in many ways, such as the use of brown face tiles,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao.

According to Shanghai architectural historian Luo Xiaowei’s book “A guide to Shanghai Architecture,” this nine-story reinforced concrete structure was “an austere-looking, Art-Deco-like apartment building faced with brown bricks laid in a diagonal pattern. There were four figure sculptures in modern art style standing on platforms by the wall, but were, unfortunately, knocked down in 1966.”

The ground floor featured a line of shops including the famous Nanjing Hair Salon which opened in 1932 and is still there today. The upper floors were various sizes of apartments.

English language newspaper “The China Press” carried an article on the construction of the fireproof building in 1928.

“Piles of 88 feet in length will be driven into the treacherous Shanghai soil to ensure practical: no settlement. The apartment will be fitted out with all the most comfortable and up-to-date lighting, heating and sanitary installations. The decorative finish will be excellent in all branches,” it reported on August 28, 1928.

According to the report, the architectural design was by Eric Cumine of Messrs. Cumine and Co., Ltd, who had just returned from Europe. The architect had completed his studies there and traveled in Italy — “the birthplace of modern architecture.”

“The architect has forgone the use of architectural cliches and classical motifs, and the facades will present something new in architectural design. Expression of purpose and construction have been made the basis of the design on the facades, and not as has been generally the case, archeology and ‘quotations’ from famous buildings. In compliance with the modern spirit and feeling in design, urbanity and serenity have been made the keynotes of the work throughout the whole building,” the 1928 report said.

In January 1930, another report in the newspaper predicted that “it will be the tallest building in the western district of Shanghai’s International Settlement” when it was scheduled to complete in May of 1930.

In a recent lecture at Yangpu Library, Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling said the 1930s saw a “modern era” of Shanghai and prosperity of architectural activities.

“Shanghai was the industrial, financial, commercial, trade, transportation, shipping and communication center of China in the early 1930s while the city’s GDP composed nearly half of that of the whole country,” he says.

“We called the period the ‘modern era’ and it was also a period of ‘modern architecture.’ Buildings of that era contained elements of both modern architecture and commercialization,” he said.

He added that this prosperous period of architecture was the result of a growing economy, soaring house prices and the advancement of architectural technology.

The Denis Apartments was such an example of modern 1930s architecture. The 120-foot-high building covers a total floor area of 24 acres. The framework of the building was of reinforced concrete while the infill was hollow brick to insulate against any extreme temperatures and noise and to lighten the load of building. The foundation beams were carried on concrete piles with wooden extensions, the total length of which was about 80 feet. The apartments building was installed with four Otis lifts and electric refrigerators were equipped in every apartment except one-roomed ones.

When completed in 1930, the building contained around 80 apartments varying in size from one room with bath and large closets to six-room suites. The ground floor featured a row of modern shops attractively finished and arranged and “these will accelerate the development of Shanghai’s next shopping center.”

According to the 1930 report, the apartment building was constructed for the Denis Land Investment Co Ltd and Denis Cheng was “the moving spirit of that land enterprise.” Probably due to Cheng’s renowned passion for sports, the building was situated in the heart of “clubland” — “the International Recreation Club, the Country Club, the Race Club, the Chinese Jockey Club, the YMCA and various sporting clubs, the Race Course itself is adjacent and the distance is not too great to the French Club.”

Denis Cheng, or Cheng Yize, was grandson of Shanghai tycoon Cheng Jinxuan. As the son of Cheng’s eldest son, Denis inherited a fortune left by his grandfather along with his uncle Cheng Linsheng, the tycoon’s second son.

“Denis Cheng was a generous man who loved sports and was enthusiastic in organizing sporting matches and even had a football team of his own. He spent a lot of money on this hobby. Not so keen on business, he left the family business to be managed by his uncle Cheng Linsheng,” says Xin Jianrong of the Shanghai Archives Bureau.

“Afterward, though the uncle became a tycoon in Shanghai real estate, he failed in financial investment. The pair of uncle and nephew ended up bankrupt and lost many of their properties,” he adds.

The cost for building the Denis Apartments was around half a million taels, “which considering the size and quality of finish is remarkably low,” according to the 1930 report. A strict watch had been kept on the financial side of the design by the architects. Unnecessary expenditure on over-elaborate decoration had been eliminated.

The report also introduced the “modern expression” of the building with simple verticals.

There were no balconies as it had been observed that nobody used balconies except for cigarette ends. Verandahs were popular but these added enormously to the cost. They had been omitted to keep rents reasonable. A roof garden was constructed instead.

On the second floor there were “setbacks” of a few feet to provide positions for the introduction of sculptural relief in the form of four figures representing comfort, progress etc.

“Another point which has been before the designer’s mind is that this building will not shout in an unneighborly manner of its presence with tower and strong center lines. It is meant to be street architecture with an air of polite consideration for the buildings in the district. Towers and other landmarks are really meant for civic and monumental and ecclesiastical buildings, but sometimes such features are insisted upon and can be mitigated when they are treated as advertising factors,” the report noted.

Denis Cheng passed away in Shanghai in 1982. His football team had dissolved in the 1940s due to lack of funds.

But this nicely designed building named after him stands on Nanjing Road today as a witness to the city’s modern era.


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