In renovation, a musical icon strikes a new note

After 12 months of construction work, a 100-year-old villa that houses Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra on Wuding Road West has been rescued from creeping decrepitude.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The Ionic pillars of the 100-year-old villa have been preserved as part of work over the past 12 months to bring the historic building back to life.

Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” might sit well on Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra's program for the new year.

After 12 months of work, the 100-year-old villa that houses the orchestra on Wuding Road W. has been rescued from creeping decrepitude.

The garden villa, built in the early 20th century, was listed as a protected historical architecture in 2005.

Its Ionic front pillars, delicately designed floor mosaic tiles, exquisite stairwell wood carvings and stained-glass windows letting in a flood of light have all been restored to their former glory.

The orchestra will stage musical performances in the building, allowing the public to appreciate the beauty of one of the city’s iconic pieces of history.

The villa’s original owner is unknown but older Shanghai residents refer to it as “Pan’s House” because one of its later owners was Pan Sansheng, a casino magnate who gained notoriety by collaborating with the Japanese.

It is said that Pan bought two villas as gifts for his party-girl bride Wang Ji. The couple lived in one house on Anfu Road and turned the one on Wuding Road into a casino called Zhaofeng Zonghui. It catered largely to celebrities and officials from the puppet government supported by Japan in the late 1930s.

Apart from gambling and dining on French and Chinese haute cuisine, patrons could also indulge in a sauna, opium smoking and sex services in rooms upstairs. Pan was later imprisoned as a traitor.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The villa's delicately designed floor mosaic tiles, exquisite wooden carvings on the stair rail and stained-glass windows letting in a flood of light have all been restored to their former glory.

In 1956, the former casino passed to the Shanghai Film Orchestra, predecessor of the Shanghai Philharmonic.

Though the architecture of the villa was generally well preserved for its age, deterioration and potential safety risks triggered major renovation work in December 2016.

The project repaired cracks in external walls and worn wooden stairs, replaced original decorations that were missing, and added safety features such as fire alarms and white-ant defenses.

Zhang Wenqing, project manager from Shanghai Jianhao Engineering Consultancy Co, said efforts were made to preserve as much of the original look as possible.

“However, with no original blueprints of the villa, all we could do is rely on what was left in the villa itself,” he said. “Minor repairs in the past had obscured some of the original features.”

After removing imitation stone paint on external walls, Zhang’s team found a completely different facade hidden beneath. Walls facing south and east were painted with gray concrete, while western and northern walls were slightly yellow ground powder.

“Historical architecture experts conjectured that these features may have been related to fengshui since the original owners were rich businessmen,” said Zhang. “We aren’t sure of the exact reasons, but we chose to follow the same pattern of different facades for different walls.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Fountain statues to the east of the villa

Statues decorating the fountain to the east of the villa were seriously damaged. No one knew what the originals looked like until an old orchestra member recalled a blurred recollection of a small boy like the famous Manneken Pis bronze statue in Brussels. Missing parts of statues were replaced and the fountain was reinforced with stainless steel hoops painted white.

“We could have taken the fountain apart and repaired it part by part,” said Zhang. “But nobody could be sure about how to put all the parts back together exactly the same. We chose a safer method after prolonged discussions.”

The main wooden staircase in the villa was treated with similar caution. Heavily worn steps were replaced without disrupting the dovetail tenon joints used in the original construction.

Other structures in the garden were redecorated to create a harmonious environment. A new rehearsal room for the orchestra was given an acoustical ceiling and walls, as well as an advanced recording system. A roof garden provides musicians with a pleasant area for breaks.

Rehearsals are starting again, according to Shi Yuanyuan, head of marketing for the orchestra.

Outdoor performances on the south lawn of the villa are planned, with seating for up to 200 people. The grand hall of the villa will be used for chamber concerts seating about 60. Music fans will be welcomed into the new rehearsal room.

“We have long been an orchestra that is part of a residential area,” said Sun Hong, vice president of the Shanghai Philharmonic. “It is one of our assets and we want to make optimum use of that and share the delight of beautiful music with the public.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The villa’s grand hall will be used for chamber concerts seating about 60.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Members of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra pictured in the rehearsal room of their renovated home on Wuding Road W.

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