Glamor of legendary hotel's annex restored
Senior resident Li Rong described her life in the historical Jinshan Mansions as "humbly proud," a contradiction in terms about the former guestroom annex of Shanghai's glorious Astor House Hotel.
For more than three decades, the 68-year-old retiree has been living in an apartment converted from a hotel guestroom in which scientist Albert Einstein, former US President Ulysses S. Grant and actor Charlie Chaplin once stayed.
Li and 200 other households in the building have had to live a primitive lifestyle resembling that in the city's dilapidated lane-style neighborhoods – cooking and washing dishes in public corridors with lampblack-stained walls and cobwebbed wires.
"When I opened the window, I could admire the city's beautiful Bund landscape and Lujiazui skyscrapers, but by opening the door, I was immediately surrounded by oily smoke and a mess of dishes and bowls," Li said.
The former lavish hotel had a private toilet for each guestroom but no private kitchens or gas pipes, so residents had to use stoves and sinks in communal spaces.
Such chaotic life has vastly improved for Li and her neighbors as the annex dating back to 1908 has undergone a major renovation to restore its Victorian Baroque glamor, while improving residents' quality of life.
The V-shaped six-story building facing Jinshan Road in Hongkou District, now known as Jinshan Mansions, is at the interchange of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek and near the landmark Waibaidu Bridge, the first all-steel bridge in China built in 1906.
Jinshan Mansions was built during an expansion of the Astor House Hotel, the city's first Western-style hotel, with a guestroom annex in the same neoclassical style. It originally had 112 guestrooms and suites along with two elevators.
During World War II, the building was occupied by the Japanese and converted into a club for high-ranking Japanese army officials. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the city government converted it into a residential building.
Yang Jinmei, 93, was among the first residents to move into the building in the 1950s. Yang recalled she was envied by relatives and friends for living in the luxurious facility.
"Life here was far more comfortable than the cramped living conditions of most Shanghai families," Yang said.
In the 1980s, the average per capita living space in Shanghai was 4.5 square meters. One-quarter of local residents used public corridors as kitchens, more than half used chamber pots and 40 percent used coal stoves for cooking, according to official statistics.
By contrast, apartments in Jinshan Mansions were 20 square meters with a private toilet.
The masonry-timber structure designed by Davies Brooke & Gran Architects represented the world's leading design concept in the early 20th century, with wide corridors and stairways along with a fire escape. The public space was decorated with luxurious wooden and plaster carvings featuring Victorian ornaments.
After more than a century of use, the building's structure, walls and decorative carvings have been severely damaged.
Residents began building illegal structures in the corridors to expand their limited living spaces in the 1980s, which worsened the condition of the building and posed fire risks.
Hongkou District's housing authority began renovating the building in 2020 after experts evaluated the structure and created a renovation plan.
After reviewing historical photos and advertisement posters of the hotel, the renovation team determined the building's facade should be covered by the original plain and red bricks, said Tao Yu, chief designer for the renovation project.
The covering on the exterior of the building was then removed to expose the original bricks.
The rusty iron stair rails were polished and repainted in the original black color, while other parts of the stairs have been restored to the original brown color.
The skirt boards on the public corridors were dismantled to undergo antiseptic, fireproofing and termite treatments before being reinstalled on the walls.
Water leaks have been alleviated and soundproof materials were attached to walls to give residents more privacy.
Floors and ceilings have been restored to their original look based on historical photos and documents.
New stoves and stainless-steel sinks have been installed for each household.
According to the blueprint, one of the two elevators in the east and west of the building, which were among the city's earliest, will be restored for the convenience of senior residents.
The original elevators were demolished long ago, so the new elevator will have an antique-style bronze cabin, a sliding door and bronze pointers to indicate what floor it's on.
Modern technologies will also be applied. A smart system, for instance, will monitor any subtle vibration or shifting of the building, as well as its environment, humidity and temperature.
Any illegal building in public spaces will be detected immediately and trigger an alert to the city's online governance network.
Astor House, previously known as Richard's Hotel, was founded by the Richard family in 1846 along the Bund near Jinling Road E. It later relocated to its current location on Huangpu Road near the Waibaidu Bridge in 1857.
Rebuilt in 1912 in a neoclassical Baroque style, the Astor House was one of the most lavish hotels in the city – and the entire Far East – in the early 20th century.
The hotel's claims to fame include the city's first electric lamp, telephone and ballroom. Cai Jun, the then governor of Shanghai, threw the first grand party in the city at the Astor House in 1897 to celebrate the 60th birthday of Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
It was listed by the city government as a heritage architecture in 1999 and became the China Securities Museum in 2018 as it was where the Shanghai Stock Exchange came into existence in 1990.