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Gothic and Art Deco institute of technology

Figures and events from yesteryear are like pearls, which are strung together by invisible silk thread. Unraveling it is the fun part of historical exploration.

When I was visiting the former Shanghai Government Building for this column (Shanghai Daily, September 15), I came to know that the grand building with a huge Chinese roof had motivated young Charlie Chen to become an architect.

He would later codesign the famous (and rejected) "Liang-Chen Plan" for Beijing's development - it would have saved most of the old city.

As I was developing a story on Chen's former residence on Hengshan Road (Shanghai Daily, September 29), I took an interest in a school mentioned in his biography - the Henry Lester Institute of Technology that nurtured his architecture dream. He entered the school in 1935.

And one clear afternoon before sunset, I finally found that school in Hongkou District; today it is a five-story hospital.

The very large (10,000-square-meter) and rather special building is a combination of different architectural styles. It was designed by Lester, Johnson & Morriss and built in 1934.

I was first struck by the beautiful array of Gothic-style arches on the street level. As I looked upward, a gigantic dome which resembles a mosque emerged.

Historian Yang Jiayou wrote about this building in "The Story of Shanghai Classic Houses:"

"This building has an interesting shape. If you look from afar, it looks like a sailing ship, but with a closer look it reminds you of an American congress hall. And from a bird's eye view it resembles a flying plane ... It's a mixture of Gothic and Art Deco styles."

To give some history of this strange building, I have to set Charlie Chen aside and tell the story of another legendary architect, Henry Lester, whose money built the institute.

Born in 1840 in Southampton, England, Lester moved to Shanghai after an unknown affliction claimed the lives of his three brothers. A doctor recommended he leave the country and the horror-stricken young man embarked on a journey to Shanghai where he made his fortune in real estate. He founded Lester, Johnson & Morriss, one of the best-known architecture firms in the city.

In the late 19th century, Lester purchased a lot of land at a low price, and its value soared in the 1920s and 30s.

With so much money, land and prestige, Lester was quite unlike other tycoons in Shanghai, then and now.

According to historian Yang, Lester never married - he lived in an ordinary house, had no cars and often took buses. He seldom bought new clothes and most of his clothes were gifts from friends.

He died in 1926 with no heirs, bequeathing his estate to philanthropic causes. The Henry Lester Institute of Technology was built with this money.

When I visited, the first floor was under renovation, which had destroyed the original decoration. A construction worker said I should have arrived two months sooner.

It wasn't the first time I had arrived too late to appreciate an intact building. Fortunately, he guided me to the upper floors that retain their original look.

The walls are covered with small, square, yellow tiles. The staircase is covered in terrazzo, no excessive interior decoration for this former famous institute. A strong smell of disinfectant lingers in the air.

In 1935, Charlie Chen entered the institute, which taught science and technology. According to his biography, everything was imported from the United Kingdom, from chalk to facilities. The student body was male; the institute gave scholarships to talented students from poor families.

Chen wrote in his biography: "My teacher H. Miller, an architect who graduated from University of Liverpool, taught me the responsibilities and the ultimate power of an architect ... I knew an architect was not an engineer, but an artist."

Miller encouraged Chen to study architecture at the University of Liverpool, which he entered in 1938.

The founder Lester was buried in what is now Jing'an Park. His trust still supports Chinese students studying in the UK whose skills "will be for the benefit of the people of China."

And if there were more real estate developers and architects like Lester, our city would definitely become a better city providing a better life for its people.


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