HK URBEX visits a valuable sliver of colonial history which dates back 128 years.
This gorgeous old European mansion is of high architectural and historical value, and has only just narrowly escaped the wrecking ball, thanks to a land-swap scheme from the government.
However, the ‘swap’ is controversial, as the developer – incidentally the biggest in Hong Kong – has instead been given a green belt plot of equivalent size opposite the house instead.
The structure was first built in 1887 for John Joseph Francis, an Irish soldier-turned-barrister who came to Hong Kong with the military in the 1860s. He made a strong lasting social contribution to the city.
He made his mark on Hong Kong through a campaign he formed to fight the 1894 outbreak of bubonic plague, and in 1877 he helped to bring in the first unofficial Chinese member of the Legislative Council.
The Irishman is also remembered for his battle against mui-tsai (妹仔) slavery, the practice of employing girls as unpaid domestic servants in the city, which resulted in the creation of Po Leung Kuk (保良局), one of the largest charities in Hong Kong that is still around today.
He was also editor and proprietor of the local English newspaper The China Mail (德臣西報).
The two-storey house was initially named after a college which Francis studied at in Lancashire, UK, and it was designed by one of Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firms, Danby & Leigh, now known as Leigh & Orange.
When it was erected it was one of the first houses to be constructed in the area and every brick, stone and piece of timber was carried on the shoulders of labourers up to its elevated location.
Built on a platform, the structure is supported by a retaining wall and the exterior has ornamental features typical of Palladianism, a classical architectural style based on the work of Andreas Palladio, an Italian architect of the 16th century who was influenced by grand Roman and Greek buildings.
When the style was falling from favour in Europe, it had a surge in popularity throughout British colonies.
Taking a cue from Classical Renaissance architecture, the main first floor is accessed through a grand-looking porch reached by a flight of external steps. Designed to welcome guests, the first floor is more formal and decorative than the floor below, with high ceilings, ornamental columns and wide windows with striking segmental arches.
Intended for more private affairs, the darker ground floor of the house features smaller windows, unique arched doorways and low-hanging ceilings. A striking steel spiral staircase connects the two floors on one side of the home, with another winding staircase positioned on the other side home.
Although the mansion has been saved from demolition, we will have to wait and see what will come to be of it through preservation.
While this page of history has been protected for now, we have yet to see if and how its character will be retained and if its true spirit will live on.