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July 13, 2011

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British-style villa with little background but big character

It's sometimes difficult to write about a historical building because often one with a great story behind might look plain while another with a great appearance is likely to have an uneventful background, such as this pretty British villa at 193 Fuxing Road.

However, this red-brick house stands out among a line of butter-hued Spanish villas on the former Rte de Boissezon. Perched in a big green yard, the villa has continued to entice me to visit but its history is seldom mentioned in archives.

Even architect Cai Yingji from Shanghai Real Estate Science Research Institute, the organization which had been using the house as a meeting venue since 1975, could only find limited history about the villa built in the 1930s.

"According to the memory of several retired employees, the house was once occupied by an expatriate doctor who was using the 700-square-meter building as his residence and clinic," says Cai, who investigated its architectural history before the villa underwent a renovation last August.

The meeting room on the first floor was formerly his surgery, according to Cai, and neither the original architect nor construction company was mentioned in the archives.

"In April 1999, Queen Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgard of the Netherlands visited this building where she participated in a meeting about renovating historical communities," she adds.

The south facade facing the garden features a large double-peak sloped roof topped with red tiles, light yellow rough-finished walls and a vivid line of continuous arched windows and arched doors.

From the north facade near Fuxing Road, steep red chimneys reaching out to the sky can be seen. The red bricks on the northern walls form a strange protruding pattern, like a mythical sign.

According to the book "Shanghai Wukang Road: A Historical Approach to Urban Regeneration," historical buildings along Wukang Road were mainly designed in four styles - Spanish, British, French renaissance and contemporary.

"The British countryside villa had strong features, which were adorned with red bricks and half-timber structures on the gables and walls. Compared with Spanish residences, British country villas usually cover a much larger area of land and cost a lot more to build," according to the book.

The book's co-author, Shanghai Tongji University researcher Qian Zonghao, had found more about the house's history through "China Hong List," an annual business and residential directory published by English newspaper The North China Daily News & Herald early last century.

The house at 193 Rte de Boissezon was occupied by Mr and Mrs E.S. Wilkinson in 1932. Mr Wilkinson worked for Thomson & Co, a chartered accountants' agency from the United Kingdom, which was located at 2 Guangdong Road and had branches in other Chinese cities including Hankou, Tianjin, Hong Kong and Beijing.

"It's interesting that the 'China Hong List' in 1937 recorded one more person living in the house - Miss Mary P. Wilkinson, which meant the couple had a daughter while they were living there. The expat doctor mentioned by former employees might be the succeeding owner of the house after the Wilkinson couple," says researcher Qian.

After 1949 the house was used for a military medical research organization until it was taken over by Shanghai Real Estate Science Research Institute in 1975, an organization specializing in studying the phenomenon, problems and technology of the city's real estate market.

The institute is known for its expertise in renovating historical buildings. A recent noteworthy project is the renovation of the south building of the Peace Hotel, which was the former Palace Hotel and now the Swatch Art Peace Hotel.

Last year the beautiful villa was in a critical condition, its wooden structure partly destroyed by humidity and termites over the past more than 70 years. Fortunately, it underwent a careful and scientific renovation guided by experts from the institute which was completed early this year.

"They 3D-scanned the building to record the original architectural details for reference during the renovation," says Cai. "Through every means our experts tried hard to preserve its original looks, including the black-and-white mosaic on the floor, the dark wood staircase and the timber frames on the roof.

"Parts that were destroyed such as copper handles on the windows were reproduced according to the original design. Even the parquetry wooden floors were paved following its original patterns," she says.

In addition, the institute also treated the building special material to prevent it from termites which are a regular problem for old houses in the former French concession.

Following the renovation, the interior has an antique and stylish look. The three-story villa has three big rooms on each floor, all in different sizes and shapes. Some of the rectangular or polygon-shaped rooms are adorned with carved stone fireplaces or big arched windows, through which the big lush green garden looks like a breathtakingly beautiful painting.

That's why even without a complicated political plot or a heart-throbbing love story behind it, this red villa is still worthy of mention.


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