In 1918, a young Hungarian named Laszlo Hudec came to Shanghai, empty-handed. When he left, 27 years later, he was a renowned architect having designed several remarkable buildings in his adopted city, including one of Shanghai's great landmarks - the Park Hotel.
An exhibit featuring old sketches, drawings, period newspaper articles, and photos of the legendary Shanghai architect and history of his equally legendary hotel is now being held on the second-floor of the hotel's atrium.
Today, the Park Hotel stands in a forest of high-rises, like a stately grande dame, retaining its elegant and reserved facade in the face of Shanghai's dramatic change. The 24-story hotel, completed in 1934, used to be Shanghai's tallest building until the 1980s.
"The Park Hotel is the city's landmark, witness to events in old Shanghai and today's fast-paced development," said Peter Fu, chief architect at KFS Architects International Inc. "Despite the radical new skyscrapers that surround it, the hotel's architectural style isn't dated, and that is largely due to Hudec's marvelous design."
Born in 1893 in northern Hungary, Laszlo Hudec studied architecture at Budapest University from 1911 to 1914.
He joined the Austro-Hungarian Army after graduation, only to be captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp in Siberia.
On a prisoner-of-war train headed for the interior of Russia from the Habarowsk prison camp near the Chinese border, Hudec leapt from the train - a leap that changed his later life - and escaped to Shanghai.
At the time, Shanghai was the fifth largest city in the world, a magnet for "adventurers" of every race and nationality who came here to seek their fortune.
Hudec joined the throng - and unlike many others, he succeeded.
In 1925, he established his own office becoming one of Shanghai's leading architects. By 1941, he had designed at least 37 buildings, some of which - like the Grand Theater, Dahua Hotel, and Park Hotel, still stand.
Yet all his other work pales beside the Park Hotel, the jewel in Hudec's crown and a masterpiece in China's architectural history.
Prior to China's economic reforms and opening to the outside world in the late 1970s, the Park Hotel was a symbol of old-world elegance and refinement, where a meal was a very special treat. Even during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), the hotel became a shelter for the city's old bourgeois.
"I have very mixed feelings towards the Park Hotel. Although it isn't among the city's five-star hotels today, the hotel retains an air of mystery to me. When I was a little girl, I'd imagine impeccably dressed people dining on Western style banquets inside," says Christine Wu, a 30-something white-collar worker.
It is said that Hudec made a special trip to America between 1927 to 1928 to study the pioneering skyscrapers and hotels there.
Among today's architects, there is a common saying - "No neoclassic, no elegance." Hudec adopted the new neoclassical style in his design of the hotel.
"Design in classical buildings is overloaded with details and is very costly," Peter Fu said. "But neoclassic buildings are much simpler, rendering an intimate aura to visitors or dwellers."
Thus the Park Hotel, even by modern standards, still stands splendidly on busy Nanjing Road. According to Fu, many architects of that time, tired of simplistic modern styles, have copied elements of the Park Hotel's design in their designs.
When designing the hotel, Hudec really considered every aspect. For example, he didn't attach any balconies, due to the hotel's unique location - surrounded with open roads.
Canada's University of Victoria held the first exhibit of Hudec's works in 1998. The university was recipient of Hudec's papers after he died in California in 1958.
Visitors to the exhibit will come across such treasures as Hudec's original sketches of the hotel and the fact that the hotel once boasted the fastest elevator and most advanced dish-washing machines in Shanghai.
Some of the exhibit reflects changes in Hudec's hotel.
While the exterior remains essentially unchanged - with the exception of the banking entrance and addition of a marquee that masks the unique silhouette of the top floors - the interior has gone through several changes.
In 1935, the outdoor garden on the 13th floor was converted into the 14th floor banquet space, still in use, surrounded by windows and covered with a sliding roof. That roof is now a back-lit glass panel set into the ceiling.
The most comprehensive interior changes occurred four years ago when American designer George Grigorian remodeled the interior, using an art deco theme.
Photos of Hudec at the exhibit show a young man radiant with confidence and pride, as if the best years of his life were somehow captured in this hotel. In a way, perhaps they were.
The exhibit will go on until next October.