GREEN was not the original color of Fairmont Peace Hotel’s signature tower, recalls renowned architect Tang Yu’en.
“The color was due to oxidation of the tower’s copper roof,” says Tang, who was the chief architect when a major restoration effort was carried out on the building in 2007.
“What is the original color? Nobody knows. We can only tell it was a dark tone from black-and-white archive photos, possibly the color of red copper,” she says. “However, we decided to maintain the emerald coating because the tower has looked green since the 1950s and has become part of the collective urban memory. If we change it to another color, people will feel it wrong and would not recognize this famous tower.”
Tang also discovered a surprising change of plan after construction work had commenced in the 1920s.
According to her research, the original plan of the hotel was a classic, horizontal high-rise office building named the Sassoon House. But in 1926, the owner, Jewish tycoon Victor Sassoon, decided to convert the upper part of the building into a luxurious hotel, elevating the tower top for commercial reasons.
“It was already a breakthrough, erecting such a gigantic structure on Shanghai’s soft soil. You can’t add the architectural load at will after the foundations were all planted,” Tang says.
“George Wilson from Palmer Turner skillfully revised the horizontal plan to an imposing, even taller vertical structure in an art-deco style with a striking tower. As an architect, I’d say such a radical change was an incredibly challenging job that highlighted Wilson’s superb skills and dominance of his client, Victor Sassoon,” Tang says.
As the fourth generation of the influential Sassoon family, Ellice Victor Sassoon, with a superb nose for business, not only dominated this project, but also the commercial life of Shanghai for years. Among his many projects — from apartments, office blocks to hotels — the Sassoon House was the ultimate showpiece built on the city’s most expensive land in the 1920s, a T-shaped zone comprising the Bund and Nanjing Road.
The greyhound image, which appears at the top of the Sassoon family coat of arms, can be found here and at the former Cathay Hotel. The greyhound symbolizes courage and loyalty.
The building was erected at a cost of approximately 750,000 pounds, and the site was worth 250,000 pounds, totaling 1,000,000 pounds in all. In other words, it was a US$5 million building, according to December 22, 1928, report in The China Weekly Review.
When the Sassoon House finally threw the doors open in 1929, the first three floors were Sassoon’s offices and few other companies. The Cathay Hotel occupied the ground floor and the fourth to the ninth floors. It featured 200 rooms and nine famous “themed” suites, each decorated in a distinctive national style, including Chinese, Indian and English.
Each suite had built-in wardrobes. The bathrooms contained marble baths with silver taps and purified water. The hotel’s dining rooms were decorated with colorful, blazing Lalique chandeliers. Sassoon’s own penthouse was on the 10th and 11th floors.
North China Herald, which interviewed Ellice Victor Sassoon, quoted him as saying that the hotel’s aim was to become Far Eastern version of Claridges, a renowned luxury hotel in London.
“Land value was up … There was a great deal of Chinese capital, and the Chinese opinion was undoubtedly about investing this in paying foreign concerns. In Sir Victor’s opinion the whole reaction was one towards foreign and Chinese cooperation to the benefit of both in commercial circles. All these things accounted for the continued interest in building,” the Herald’s 1928 article said.
The paper also carried an advertisement announcing the formal opening of the Cathay Hotel in 1929, noting it was a “wonderful combination of art and luxury.”
The advertisement was honest. Today entering the hotel is like walking in a nostalgic dream. The centerpiece of the lobby is a spectacular domed rotunda adjacent to an arcade.
The dazzling stained glass in the rotunda, elegant metal lamps and abundant Art Deco carvings keep visitors lingering in the warm tones of the lobby. A soothing wood-scented aroma coming from the original 1929 Art Deco air-conditioning rents fills the air.
In 2007, when architect Tang was commissioned to restore this nostalgic dream, she was faced with an equally challenging job compared with Wilson’s some 80 years ago.
Restored to glory
Social change in China has split the history of the legendary Sassoon House into two parts. As the Cathay Hotel, it was famous throughout Far East and set a precedent for luxury and glamor. But Sassoon’s parties came to an end with the outbreak of the World War II. He left Shanghai in 1941.
The building was used by the Shanghai Municipal Government after 1949. It reopened later as the state-owned Peace Hotel in 1956. Until the restoration kicked off in 2007, the ground floor was shared by the hotel, East China Telecom Bureau and Shanghai Commercial Bureau which now has a clothing shop in the rotunda.
“Even I haven’t seen the original rotunda. I only remember the building had three separate gates, one for the Peace Hotel, one for the telecom bureau and the other a shop for selling cheap products like shirts and woolen sweaters,” says Tang who is in her 70s now.
Tang also designed the Shanghai Library and restored the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund.
“In the early 1990s, the Commercial Bureau added a mezzanine and a spiral staircase in the shop for flooded shoppers on Nanjing Road, which totally changed the look of the historical rotunda. Fortunately in the 21th century, people have more common understandings of the value and proper use of historical buildings,” Tang says, recalling the background of the three-year restoration from 2007 to 2010.
It took some work to persuade the three state-owned bureaus to cooperate, open separation doors and connect the rotunda and the arcade again, like it was in 1929.
The highlight of the project was to restore the rotunda, which looked rather dim then, to its glory of yesteryears.
“In the 1920s, glass was still a novel material whose quality was not as good as today. So two layers of iron nets were designed above and under the glass dome of the rotunda to eliminate injury in case a piece of broken glass fell down,” Tang explains.
“Now we have laminated glass. Two pieces of glasses stick together with highly elastic glue, which won’t fall down if it snaps, so the iron nets are not necessary. The moment we removed the rusting iron nets and replaced the old glasses with new ones, the rotunda lit up. It very likely looked what it did in 1929. The hotel’s old employees were so happy and they said we rebuilt yesterdays glory,” Tang adds.
Her team also solved a lot of difficulties during this restoration, such as smartly hiding the return air ports for air conditioning around silver relief that decorates the rotunda. The hotel’s 1920s radiator covers have all been preserved but are used as return air ports, too.
The yellow tone of the replaced glass is inspired from yellow lights illuminating through the original shop window glass in the rotunda.
“It’s the first Art Deco building in China but Sassoon’s penthouse was decorated in Jacobean style, with dark, carved paneling and richly molded ceilings, instead of the up-to-date Deco,” says Tongji University Professor Chang Qing, whose team surveyed the building before Tang’s renovation in 2007.
During the survey the professor discovered that Sassoon had a plan of connecting the Sassoon House and Palace Hotel with an overhead gallery in the 1940s. The design was completed but the plan was not implemented due to shortage of fund.
“The hotel impressed me as being an old aristocrat. He was aging but he was still the lord. Everywhere, every detail is so refined and stylish,” he adds. “A building has its life and our urban history is carried by historical buildings. We shall preserve and reuse these buildings and prolong their lives as long as possible.”
After a three-year renovation, the building reopened in 2010 as the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Today, it is again a hotel of art and luxury located on the city’s most expensive corner on Nanjing Road E. and the Bund.
Yesterday: The Sassoon House
Today: Fairmont Peace Hotel
Address: 20 Nanjing Rd E.
Built in: 1929
Architectural style: Commercial Gothic Art Deco
Architect: Palmer Turner
Next building: Huiluo Co Ltd, July 15