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June 29, 2011

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Italian diplomat's old villa a charmer on Wukang Road

Historical buildings often leave behind myths and raise unanswered questions, and one of the most intriguing is the grand white villa at 390 Wukang Road, one of the most beautiful buildings on the former Route Ferguson.

I visited the villa in Xuhui District months ago but could not find out its real hidden story until recently. During the interim, I visited and wrote about another villa of a similar Mediterranean style in the neighborhood, Li's Garden at 63 Gao'an Road (Shanghai Daily, January 5 2011).

The building at No. 390 is widely known as the former mansion of Commander Luigi Neyrone, the Italian consul general in Shanghai from 1933 to 1939. It was assumed that the Mediterranean style came from Neyrone's Italian background, but according to recent research by Shanghai Tongji University expert Qian Zonghao, this was not the case: he was not the builder.

Qian checked the China Hong List published by The North China Daily News & Herald in 1932 and discovered that the original owner was Lewis R. Andrews. He presumed Andrews was the builder because the structure did not show up in the annual English-language yellow book in previous years.

According to district records, the 420-square-meter villa was built in 1932. It is now used by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp as a venue for international meetings.

I visited on a quiet, sunny afternoon several months ago and the memory is still fresh.

At the first glance the building amazed me with its contrasting colors. Unlike many historical buildings painted in vague tones, this villa has snow-white walls, dark-wood beams and a red-tile roof.

The first owner Andrews was a partner in a foreign exchange brokerage called Wentworth, Andrews & Giese on Jiujiang Road, according to expert Qian. In 1936, the Andrews couple had moved from the expensive and safe former French concession to a cheaper address at 465 Hongqiao Road, probably due to declining business.

"Of course, the couple might also have moved to enjoy the good air in the countryside, since the Hongqiao area was countryside at that time," notes Qian.

As a signature, Mediterranean-style villa, the brick-and-wood building is shaped like a huge fan with seven arches in the front. An artistic colonnade wraps around the east, west and south facades, offering a perfect view of its big lush garden. On the south facade, a mini white balcony decorated with a curved gable extends from the red-tile roof.

The interior was changed completely in a renovation in 2003. Now it looks more like an elite club or a small commercial meeting center than a residence.

According to Qian, the 1936 property record suggests the new owner was Commander Luigi Neyrone, the Italian consul general in Shanghai, who worked at the consulate at 555 Bubbling Well Road (now Nanjing Road W.). The consulate was torn down during construction of the elevated highway.

Born in 1877 in Alessanaria, Italy, Neyrone graduated from Turin Polytechnic University and had served as a consul in Singapore and consul general in Tianjin since 1927.

He came to Shanghai as consul general on March 28, 1933, according to the archives of Italian consulate in Shanghai. He left here to be the consul general in Changchun, Jilin Province, in 1940.

"As a diplomat it was almost impossible for Neyrone to buy a real estate for himself. Most likely it was purchased by the consulate as his mansion," Qian says.

So the Mediterranean white villa was occupied by a diplomat from a Mediterranean country, but he did not tell the architect to build in that style.

"From the current archives I cannot discover the national background of the original owner, Mr Andrews," says Qian. "It's still a myth why he would choose to build such a prominent Mediterranean villa as his home in the early 1930s when the famous Route Ferguson was dominated by so many British or Spanish villas."


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