Former country club to become fashion, creative hub

Columbia Circle is rich in history, and much of that heritage is being preserved as the site prepares to serve the 21st century public.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The pool at the Navy Club, a former sports facility for the Columbia Country Club, is the city’s last remaining English-style swimming pool.

Columbia Circle in the western downtown area is among few local sites that comprise both exquisite historical structures and remnants of earlier scientific research.

The compound, tucked away on the site of a former biological institute, has kept a low profile for decades. Even many locals aren’t aware of it. But that’s about to change.

Columbia Circle is being renovated as a hub for fashion and leisure arts.

The site, owned by the Shanghai Institute of Biological Products on Yan’an Road W. near Panyu Road, is being converted into a complex with offices and shopping. Companies involved in cultural industries, such as fashion, will be based there, according to a blueprint of the Changning District government.

The three historical structures — the Columbia Country Club, the Navy Club and a villa built for Dr Sun Yat-sen’s son Sun Ke — are being preserved, said Zhao Chengliang, director of the district’s construction and transport commission.

From 1927 to 1942, the Columbia Country Club was a social gathering place for Americans. After World War II broke out in the Pacific, the site was taken over by Japanese invaders who used it as a transit camp for Allied nationals remaining in Shanghai.

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The Columbia Country Club, once a social gathering place for Americans, reflects a Spanish-style of architecture, with teak floors, stone fireplaces, stone columns and a spiral staircase.

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The interior of the Columbia Country Club reflects a Spanish-style of architecture, with floor tiles, stone columns and a spiral staircase restored to their original look.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Stone columns at the Columbia Country Club

The building reflects a Spanish-style of architecture, with teak floors, stone fireplaces, stone columns and a spiral staircase restored to their original look. The wooden beams on the second floor have been left exposed to show off the delicate structures to visitors. Several large French windows lead out onto a balcony where visitors can view the whole compound.

Chang Guocai, a retired official with the biological institute, said he used a bedroom, dining room and guest room in Sun Ke’s villa as offices in 1984. In his spare time, he said he liked telling the history of the site to young employees.

“Historical buildings deserve proper protection so that the old stories behind the structures can be retained,” Chang said.

The club was initially founded in 1918 on Route Doumer, known as Donghu Road today. But as membership increased, a bigger clubhouse was required. So in 1924, American-owned Asia Realty Co purchased farmland near Columbia Road, which is today Panyu Road, and developed the site into a country club.

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The Sun Ke Villa is the best-preserved structure in the Columbia Circle compound. Engineers have improved the ventilation to ward off mold in the wooden ground floors.

The renowned Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec was appointed to design the project. He drew on Spanish-style architecture because that was in vogue in the US at the time. He built a garden villa for himself next to the club.

In 1932, Hudec transferred ownership of the villa to Sun Ke in gratitude for personal favors. Sun, who served as the head of the legislative body and vice president of the Kuomintang government of the day, lived in the villa between 1932 and 1948.

Chen Yi, Shanghai’s first mayor after liberation in 1949, turned the compound over to the institute in 1951. Several additional buildings were erected for research and production of domestically developed vaccines. A high-rise building, once the tallest in Changning, was used to produce vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella.

The institute was relocated to the urban outskirts of Fengxian District in 2014, and the old country club site remained vacant until 2016, when Vanke rented it for two decades and began renovations.

“We have restored the facade and interiors based on their history, and we added fire prevention and other essential safety features,” said Lu Yanqing, the chief designer for the renovation project.

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A former living room on the second floor of the Sun Ke Villa. The former glory of the three-story villa is easy to imagine, with exquisite details like natural wood floors, a curving staircase, French windows and elegant chandeliers.

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Second floor of the villa

An original “wall-roughening” technique was applied to the country club building, a typical feature of Spanish architecture, Lu said.

The Sun Ke Villa is the best-preserved structure because it was listed among Shanghai’s first group of protected historical buildings in 1999. Engineers cleaned the exterior walls and improved the ventilation to ward off mold in the wooden ground floors, he said.

The former glory of the three-story villa is easy to imagine, with exquisite details like natural wood floors, a curving staircase, French windows and elegant chandeliers. Quarters that once housed servants are attached to the villa.

In 2006, Sun Ke’s daughter visited the villa of her youth. Lu said there were unexpected discoveries during the renovation. One was a delicate stone sculpture of a goat’s head, found near the swimming pool of the Navy Club, which served as a sports facility for the country club.

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A stone sculpture of a goat’s head was found near the pool during the renovation. It was hidden in a wall that was built after the Shanghai Institute of Biological Products took over the site.

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The pool

Li Qianghua, 66, a retired employee with the institute, said he spent much of his youth in the compound, where his father worked before him. He said the pool was open only to institute employees.

A small room in the east of the country club has also been newly opened. The room was divided into several small workshops by the institute. Now it is the area with the most vintage atmosphere, Lu said.

The designer retained six funnel-like facilities in the former steam room of the Navy Club. The funnels have been recycled as outlets for the newly installed air conditioning system. According to the future development plan of Vanke, about 70 percent of the buildings in the compound will be turned into offices, while the rest will be used for “creative lifestyle” pursuits, including entertainment, fitness and dining.

“Our institute contributed a lot to public health for decades, and I hope this site will continue to contribute to public life once it is fully opened,” Li said.

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Six funnel-like facilities will serve as outlets for the air conditioning system.

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