Like no other, this vibrant ad for the trifecta of Victor Sassoon’s hospitality empire, symbolizes the unprecedented real-estate boom and architectural splendor of Shanghai in the early 1930s. Join us on a journey through the history of the three edifices, all of which still house hotels today.
Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon (1881 –1961) was a business tycoon and property developer from a prosperous Baghdadi Jewish merchant and banking family. In the mid-1920s, he transferred much of his wealth from India to Shanghai, China where he invested millions and became the city’s no. 1 realtor. At one time, he owned over 1,800 properties there and was in fact considered one of the world’s richest men.
More than anyone else, he forever transformed the Shanghai cityscape within just a few short years.
With his visionary zeal, Sir Victor kicked-off his Shanghai construction frenzy by organizing the Cathay Land Co. and the Cathay Hotels Ltd.
Together with the building materials distributor Arnhold & Co and the architecture firm Palmer & Turner, the consortium in 1926 started construction of what would become their first, yet most impressive Shanghai landmark – the legendary Sassoon House on the intersection of Nanjing Road and the Bund riverfront.
Cathay Hotel opened August 1929
Considered the first skyscraper in the Eastern Hemisphere, the almost 80 meters tall building opened in August 1929 and was slated the “finest in the Far East” and “the lavishness of its appointments probably the finest in the world”. The building was an architectural masterpiece, fusing Western Art Deco with Chinese design elements.
Its ground floor featured a spacious lounge, the American Bar, a reception office and a shopping arcade. Floors 1-3 were occupied by offices and the floors 4 to 7 housed the luxurious Cathay Hotel which was “rivaling the best in Manhattan” and “charging Manhattan prices”. The 8th floor featured the upper lounge, a main dining and ball-room with terraces, the 9th floor the infamous Tower Nightclub and Roof Garden and the 10th floor the Jacobean Banqueting Hall. All of the facilities were airconditioned, which was an absolute novelty in the 1920s.
On the 11th floor, just below the buildings sharply pitched green pyramidal roof, was Sir Victor Sassoon’s very own downtown pied-à-terre: an exclusive penthouse with a magnificent view of the city The suite, adorned with oak paneling, had the added luxury of featuring two baths in its bathroom. “I like to share my bed,” the famous playboy explained, “but never my bath.”
Almost 100 years later, the Sassoon House today is home to the 5-star Fairmont Peace Hotel and remains the most recognizable vestige of Old Shanghai.
Even Sir Victor’s old love-nest, now the Presidential Suite, can be booked for a meager USD 3,000+ per night.
Cathay Mansions opened November 1929
Next, Sir Victor proceeded to apartment houses designed to “relieve the taipans of the onus of maintaining big mansions heavily staffed”.
The eighteen stories Cathay Mansions opened shortly after the Sassoon House in November 1929 and became Shanghai’s first high-rise residential hotel. It housed 279 private apartments, a bakery, a Tudor style banqueting hall and a roof garden that offered a view all the way to the Huangpu River.
The Gothic Art Deco style edifice was located on Rue Cardinal Mercier & Rue Bourgeat (corner of Maoming Lu and Changle Lu) in the French Concession and right across the street from the French Club.
Six years later, it was joined by the even more opulent Art Deco megalith, the Grosvenor House.
The two Sassoon buildings were renamed the Jin Jiang Hotel in 1951, after a popular restaurant in Grosvenor House run by Chinese businesswoman Dong Zhujun, and continues to operate under that name to this day.
Metropole Hotel opened March 1932
Just a few months after the Cathay Mansions opened, Sir Victor and his collaborators put down the foundations for the sixteen stories Metropole Hotel and south of it its mirror-image, the office and apartment building titled the Hamilton House.
One block behind the Bund, the twin Art Deco skyscrapers were located on the corner of Kiangse Road and Foochow Road (Jiangxi Lu and Fuzhou Lu) and opened in March 1932. The bustling downtown intersection, which was referred to as “a second Picadilly Circus” by the local press, was furthermore location to the new Shanghai Municipal Council building and the fifteen storey China Development Building on its Western corners.
Both of these iconic Sassoon buildings still serve their original purpose today, with the newly renovated and modernized Metropole now called the Jin Jiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq.
The completion of “Shanghai’s Leading Hotels”, far from ended Victor Sassoons pre-war building rampage:
On the first day of 1932 the Cathay Theatre on Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Lu) opened, four months later in April 1932 the Embankment House on Suzhou Creek.
The 19storey Broadway Mansions dominating the Bunds skyline were completed in 1934 for the Shanghai Land Investment Co. which was also controlled by Sir Victor.
In April 1935 the aforementioned Grosvenor House next to the Cathay Mansions was opened.
As the 1930s wore on, Shanghai’s giddy heyday, in which Victor Sassoon played a pivotal role, appeared to be winding down. But before the bombs fell and the curtain finally came down on the world of Old Shanghai, one last monument to the city’s opulence emerged on the scene.
In November 1936, Ciro’s nightclub opened its doors on Bubbling Well Road (today called Nanjing West Road), just a stone’s throw from the Shanghai Race Club (todays People's Park). With its sleek Art Deco design and central air conditioning, Ciro’s quickly became the place to see and be seen for Shanghai’s elites.
It was, some would argue, the very pinnacle of Old Shanghai’s glamorous excess and decadence.
While the building did not survive the ravages of time, the modern high-rise and shopping mall which today stands in its place, is still named Ciro’s Plaza as a tribute to Sir Victor Sassoon’s lasting impact on Shanghai’s urban landscape, both through his surviving historic structures and modern-day allusions.