A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift

Hailed as “one of Shanghai’s finest buildings on Nanking Road,” the 1930s Shanghai Power Company headquarter is undergoing renovation and will reopen as a luxury boutique hotel.
A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

One of the city's finest buildings — the former headquarters of Shanghai Power Company on Nanjing Road — is undergoing renovation and will reopen as part of the luxury Edition Hotel.

The power company moved into the building at 181 Nanjing Road in 1931 and would invite people to watch the demonstration of electrical apparatus because “everything electrical is here — for rent or for sale.”

But now Shen Xiaoming, chief architect of the restoration work, says the historic building is set for an overhaul.

“No. 181 will be the public area of the hotel, featuring restaurants, spa rooms and a convention center while the adjacent 1980s high-rise, East-China Electric Power Building, at No. 201 will house the rooms. Once completed, there will be one more historical building on Nanjing Road open to the public,” says Shen.

Shanghai Power Company was the city’s main electricity supplier until 1949 and provided 80 percent of electricity to the city, according to research scholar Chen Baoyun from the Shanghai University of Electric Power. The company used the images of Leigong, God of Thunder, in Chinese mythology, in its advertisements to promote the use of electric power among the locals.

The company also used the media to explain the advantages of using clean power with no dirt or smoke, affordability and convenience of use.

To make its case, the ground floor of the building boasted an elaborate marble-adorned showroom to demonstrate electrical apparatus including cooking stoves, hot water heaters and radiators. The showroom was previously at the Sassoon House on the Bund.

“With what the company rents and small purchases as may be desired — like electric percolators and electric fans — comfort beyond the dream of kings a century ago may be had at moderate cost. One may arise in the coldest weather to the vivid glow of an electric radiator, bathe in water electrically heated, and eat breakfast cooked on an electric stove,” a report in the China Press on December 21, 1931, said.

A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The facade highlights vertical lines with convex patterns on the top.

A style of power

The building is a reinforced concrete and steel structure “sturdy enough to withstand all the blows to which buildings are susceptible for many years.” Though it had only six stories, the structural strength of the building allowed for the addition of three more stories if necessary.

American architect Elliot Hazzard used the most modern technology that was in vogue at that time such as the automatically controlled Ottis elevators — the fastest in the city in 1931. Hazzard also designed three other signature buildings on Nanjing Road — Wing On Tower, Foreign YMCA Building and China United Apartments.

“Hazzard was an influential architectural firm in Shanghai in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The early period was dominated by eclectic style but had switched to Art Deco style in the later years. The Shanghai Power Company was one of the masterpieces of the late period,” says Tongji University professor Chang Qing, author of the book “Origin of a City: A Study of the Bund Section of Nanjing Road in Shanghai.”

Art Deco style, which took off after the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, coincided with Shanghai’s real estate boom from the 1920s to the 1930s and had a great impact on the city’s architectural scene.

Art Deco buildings in Shanghai are generally divided into two styles — the French and the American Art Deco. The Shanghai Power Company building can be categorized into the “American Art Deco” as it mirrored Art Deco buildings in New York of the same period in many ways, such as its treatment of pilasters, decorations over the corners and geological patterns.

“Art Deco style symbolizes brightness, vitality and power,” according to Shen.

Back in 1931, Art Deco style might be a fitting choice for No. 181, which was owned and used entirely for the offices of Shanghai Power Company. Some surviving historical details reflect the history of the building, such as the patterns of lightning on the staircase railing or muscular men with a hammer or with lightening and clouds on the big iron gate.

In addition to the showroom on the ground floor, the second, third, fourth and fifth floors were occupied by staff members while the sixth floor was the executive suites. All the rooms on the sixth floor were paneled in teakwood and well-furnished. The dimension of each floor was about 150 by 100 feet.

A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The iron gate is decorated with patterns of a muscular man with a hammer or with lightning, which well displays the power of electricity.

The pleasing facade was decorated by Chinese Taishan tiles while cast-iron spandrels were used for the plate glass windows. The facade highlights vertical lines with the convex decorations in white color on the top. Below the window is the embossed metal board in bronze color that contrasted with the wall surface in colors.

“Generally the facade of the ground floor was made of stone, plaster or cement mortar. But in this building, the architect selected terrazzo for the ground part, which was rare and had been covered by painting for many years,” says Shen.

The terrazzo facade only came to light after careful cleaning and restoration work. A decorative eagle on top of the building, a typical Art Deco element, was also discovered and repaired.

The significance of this project, Shen believes, is that it will open one more historical building to the public on this prominent location. The former power company building remains an important landmark that contributes to the perspective of Nanjing and Jiangxi roads.

Manager Lu Yang of Shandong Luneng Group Co Ltd, the project’s developer, says the interior of the hotel will have a similar style of other Edition hotels.

Shen is of the opinion that a historical building tends to rot and does not get proper conservation without a modern life to it. Renovation of a historical building is not only a technical work, it’s a co-work among the developer, the architect, the media and the citizens.

“Nanjing Road is such an important thoroughfare that the opening of one more historical building will certainly add more glamour to this street. If you walk into an old building, only then will you be able to experience it instead of just being a passer-by,” he says.

Building details

Yesterday: Shanghai Power Company

Today: The Shanghai Edition Hotel (the part of public area)

Address: 181 Nanjing R

Architect: Elliot Hazzard

Architectural style: Art Deco

Built: In 1931

Tips: Please admire Art Deco elements on the fa?ade of the building. When it’s open, it would be fun to explore 1930s power-themed decorations hidden inside the hotel.

A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

An advertisement by Shanghai Power Company in China Weekly Review (1935) promotes office lighting.

Shanghai Power's bid to boost fridge sales

In a few mere weeks the hot dense heat of the usual Shanghai summer will be reminding those who haven’t prepared for its various unpleasant contingencies that they’ve been thoughtless of health and comfort, says Mrs Taylor of the Shanghai Power Company.

May is the month for investigating refrigerators: almost every well known and reliable manufacturer of electric refrigerator is represented on the local market. The S.P.C. has in their showroom at 181 Nanking Road various models and sizes from the representatives.

Men and women from the Home Service Department of the company can give detailed information on every kind of electric refrigerator and show the diversified advantages of each.

The S.P.C. feels there is no need to remind the thoughtful Shanghai parent that during this summer more than any other, the ultimate in food protection should be given. After careful selection at the markets: fruits, vegetables and meats, washed and placed in the pure cold temperature of the electric refrigerator are almost bound to be protected against the savages of humid germ filled air.

Spoiled foods cannot always be detected until after heat and dangerous bacteria has worked visable damage, but spoiled food is almost any food that has been left in a temperature above 50 Fahrenheit. The electric refrigerator guarantees a correct temperature plus pure air and pure ice because electric energy is in itself pure.

 Mrs Taylor of the Shanghai Power Company’s Home Service Department hopes that all consumers and potential owners of electric refrigerators will visit the Nanking Road showrooms and see the attractive models on display.

─ Excerpt from The China Press (May 11, 1938)

A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

The staircase railing features patterns of lightning.

A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE
A Nanjing Road landmark gets a face-lift
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE
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