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Tycoon's home a jewel by Hudec

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 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.

My first contact with the Ho Tung's Residence was from behind a piece of glass. During a lunch at an organic hot pot restaurant on Shaanxi Road N., a breathtakingly beautiful garden captured my attention through a wall of glass.

A month later on a plane from Shanghai to Beijing I read an article about the secret garden and the attached building. The villa was once home of Hong Kong tycoon, Sir Robert Ho Tung.

I finally had a close look at the residence with a small group of old-house enthusiasts not too long ago. The step-by-step acquaintance with the house added special pleasure. It was like first casually glancing at someone from afar, then learning some stories about him, and finally getting a chance to meet him.

The villa designed by Hungarian architect L.E. Hudec reminds me of another work by this prolific, legendary designer - tycoon Liu Jisheng's Residence on Julu Road (now the Shanghai Writer's Association).

Hudec created more than 60 impressive works in Shanghai, including the Park Hotel early last century. The Hungarian Consulate General in Shanghai launched "The Year of Hudec" in 2008 to commemorate him.

Both villas are Hudec's early works and in neoclassical style. They are sister buildings of similar yet different kinds of beauty. Compared with the Liu residence, this two-story villa is much lesser known to the public. It was a very early work when Hudec still worked at R.A. Curry's firm before starting his own business.

The entrance on Shaanxi Road N. leads to a view of the east wing, which is already beautiful. The delicate east gate is graced by a huge lintel with triangular decoration and two Ionic columns that support a mini-balcony.

The front, the south facade, is in the same style but on a much grander scale. Four huge Ionic columns mushroom up to the second floor, which makes a nice porch and so elegantly half hides a shallow balcony on the second floor.

White French windows, a flat roof surrounded with parapets and railings, and windows in interestingly different shapes and sizes. Everything you could imagine for a dream house - this has it all.

According to the book "An Appreciation of Old Shanghai Famous Residences" published by Tongji University, Sir Ho was born in 1862 in Hong Kong where he became the wealthiest man of his time and a major stockholder in many enterprises including the HSBC Bank.

Keen on public affairs and charity, he was knighted by the British Crown for his donation during World War I. Also during the war he increased his investment in Shanghai and acquired quite a lot of properties in the north Bund area.

After 1949, the villa housed the state-owned Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House. Senior member of the staff Wang Changchun says the villa was in a state of disrepair when the publishing house moved in. It was renovated and then leased to a company providing service offices mainly for foreign companies.

Now it's divided into 40 business suites, 12 on the first floor and 28 on the second.

Though the renovation was thorough, the building retains its strikingly beautiful black-and-white marble floor and the original grand spiral staircase with patterned iron railings. They express the nobility of this villa. The balcony is also preserved, offering fresh air and another observation point.

The main facade of this Western-style building faces the beautiful Chinese garden that once took my breath away in the neighboring restaurant.

According to "Hudec's Architecture in Shanghai" published by the Shanghai Urban Planning Management Bureau, "the indoor and outdoor layout that combined the Chinese and Western styles are evidence of Hudec's grasp of a popular trend, his careful consideration of the owner, and a superior understanding of Chinese and Western cultures."

The garden is the soul of the residence, believes Professor Ying Yuli from Tongji University, organizer of amateur old-house explorations.

"The most interesting part of the house is the well-preserved Chinese garden filled with camphor trees, old vines and labyrinths," says Ying. "Ho Tung was of mixed descent. So the house is Western classic style but the garden is Chinese, which more or less reflects the background and psychology of this man. And the hot pot restaurant is so smart to borrow a beautiful garden scene from the villa."


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