“The Cathay Hotel was designed by the architectural firm Palmer and Turner and completed in 1929 and was the pride of its owner, Sir Victor Sassoon. It has a triangular shaped piece of land at the intersection of Nanking Road and the Bund, with a green pyramidal tower with Tudor paneling, imitating the American Chicago School. The Cathay Hotel was only one portion of the Sassoon House, which also contained offices and shopping arcades. Nowadays it known as [the Fairmont] Peace Hotel.” — http://www.virtualshanghai.net
“The Man Who Changed the Face of Shanghai” by Taras Grescoe, The New York Times, October 2, 2014
“Until recently, the name Sassoon — or, more exactly, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon, the third baronet of Bombay — had been all but effaced from the streets of Shanghai. The scion of a Baghdadi Jewish family, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Sassoon shifted the headquarters of a family empire built on opium and cotton from Bombay to Shanghai, initiating the real estate boom that would make it into the Paris of the Far East.
“The 1929 opening of the Cathay Hotel (its name was changed to the Peace in the mid-50s), heralded as the most luxurious hostelry east of the Suez Canal, proclaimed his commitment to China. (He even made the 11th-floor penthouse, just below the hotel’s sharply pitched pyramidal roof, his downtown pied-à-terre.) Within a decade, Sassoon had utterly transformed the skyline of Shanghai, working with architects and developers to build the first true skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere, in the process creating a real estate empire that would regularly see him counted among the world’s half-dozen richest men. Within two decades, the red flag of the People’s Republic was hoisted over the Cathay, which would for many years serve as a guesthouse for visiting Soviet bloc dignitaries.
“Yet, over the course of the years, Sassoon’s buildings, apparently too solid to demolish, continued to stand, so many mysterious Art Deco and Streamline Moderne megaliths in a cityscape growing ever grimier with coal dust. As Shanghai once again takes its place as one of Asia’s fastest-growing metropolises, and supertall, 100-plus-story towers define its new skyline, there are signs that the city is beginning to value, and even treasure, its prewar architectural heritage. Sir Victor would have appreciated the irony: The landmarks of Shanghai’s semi-colonial past, vestiges of a once-reviled foreign occupation, have lately become some of its most coveted addresses.
“The last time I was in Shanghai, in 2007, the Peace Hotel was in a sorry state. In the Jazz Bar, whose faux Tudor walls seemed to be stained yellow with the nicotine of decades, I watched a sextet of septuagenarian Chinese jazzmen lurching their way through “Begin the Beguine.” (The musicians, who rehearsed clandestinely through the Cultural Revolution, are still sometimes joined by their oldest member, a 96-year-old drummer.)
“I was given a tour of the property by Peter Hibbard, an author whose books ‘Peace at the Cathay’and ‘The Bund’ document Shanghai’s European architectural history. He showed me tantalizing glimpses of marble and stained glass, partly hidden by poorly dropped ceilings, and explained that the lavish décor of the eighth-floor restaurant — inspired by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing’s Forbidden City — had to be papered over during the Cultural Revolution to spare it the wrath of the Red Guards. Hidden away in storerooms, he assured me, were the original Arts and Crafts furniture and Deco glasswork that had been a feature of every guest room. Mr. Hibbard informed me the hotel was about to close its doors for a complete makeover; he feared the worst.
“After a three-year restoration overseen by the lead architect Tang Yu En (and a makeover supervised by the Singapore-based designer Ian Carr, completed in 2010), much of the cachet of the old Cathay has been restored to the Peace.
“On the ceiling of the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, gilded chinoiserie bats once again soar; Lalique sconces have been returned to the corridor that leads to the eighth-floor ballroom. In nine themed suites, the décor has been recreated from old photos: The Indian Room is newly resplendent with filigreed plasterwork and peacock-hued cupolas, while a semicircular moon gate separates the sitting and dining rooms of the Chinese Room. A spectacular rotunda has once again become the centerpiece of the ground floor, its soaring ceiling of leaded glass undergirded by marble reliefs of stylized greyhounds that remain the hotel’s insignia.
“Some changes would surely have caused Sassoon to arch an eyebrow. To avoid spooking visitors from the south, elevators now skip directly from the third to the fifth floor. (The number 4 sounds like the Cantonese word for “death.”) The revolving door on the riverfront Bund, once the privileged entrance for such celebrity visitors as Douglas Fairbanks and Cornelius Vanderbilt, is now chained shut with a rusty padlock. (It is bad feng shui for a building’s main door to face water.)
“In spite of such adjustments, Mr. Hibbard is delighted to see Sassoon’s flagship property reclaiming pride of place on the Bund. “Sir Victor changed the face, and the manners, of Shanghai,” he said. ‘The Cathay exemplified this. Outside, it’s so simple, clean and streamlined. Inside, it’s fanciful and buoyant. It gave society a venue to play in. It still gives people from around the globe an opportunity to have a fantastic time in one of the world’s most exciting cities.’
“The building has something else going for it: location. Sassoon built his headquarters where bustling Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s main commercial street, intersected with the banks, clubs and head offices of foreign firms that lined the Huangpu riverfront. The hotel, in other words, sits at the exact point where China meets the world — which means that, to this day (and well into most nights), it is buffeted by concentrated streams of humanity.
“I was not surprised that Noël Coward found the serenity to write the first draft of ‘Private Lives’ during a four-day sojourn at the Cathay in 1929, or that Sassoon, a nomadic tycoon who could live anywhere in the world, chose it as the site for his aerie. The sensation of being swaddled in luxury at the calm center of a bewitching maelstrom is unique. After building the Cathay, all Sassoon had to do was sit and wait for the world to come to him.” – www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/travel/the-man-who-changed-the-face-of-shanghai-.html
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