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Fred Rowntree: The Architect of a Chinese University

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Fred Rowntree

It was with great pleasure that, together with my mother, I wrote a short preface for a book about the history of the buildings in the West China Union University in Chengdu, Sichuan. These buildings are now part of West China School of Medicine, part of Sichuan University. My great-great Grandfather, Fred Rowntree, was the architect for the project, and travelled out to Chengdu to survey the site. In this preface we told how he travelled to China in 1913 and played his part in the history of the great universities and medical schools that have occupied the buildings he designed. His was an enormous adventure, taking more than two months to reach Chengdu.

The book is entitled: The Stories of the Historic Architecture of Huaxiba and was written by Qi Yanan and translated by Luo Junhe. It is a bilingual Chinese-English edition published by the Sichuan Science and Technology Press. It draws on many of Fred’s drawings and plans which I was pleased, on behalf of my mother, to give to Sichuan University.

I understand that some sections were removed from the Chinese translation. However, the book contains the original unmodified English. Permission has been granted to reproduce the text.

Fred Rowntree

On Saturday 1st February 1913 a 53 year old architect and his brother boarded a train from London to the port of Harwich at the start of what was an incredible adventure. His name was Fred Rowntree, and he had won the competition to design the buildings for a new university in Chengdu, China. This was the West China Union University, which was funded by four Christian mission organisations.

A direct flight from London to Chengdu takes under 11 hours. In 1913 the journey was rather more arduous [i]. From Harwich Fred, and his brother George, took a ship to the Hook of Holland and then a train to Peking (Beijing [ii]) via Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow and Siberia. They arrived in Peking on February 14th and spent time in the capital meeting various people and visiting the sites that tourists still flock to today. On the 25th February they set off for Hankow

(now part of Wuhan) by train, arriving on the 27th. They then took a boat, setting off on the

Travelling up the Yangtze

1st March sailing up the Yangtze by steamer to Ichang (Yichang) and then taking a kuaize (a small house boat) hauled by teams of trackers through the Yangtze gorges, at one point getting caught in a dangerous whirlpool, arriving on the 22nd March at Wan-Hsien (Wanxian). They set off across country, at some stages being carried in sedan chairs, staying in local inns or Buddhist temples. After spending time in Suining to observe local building styles and methods, they arrived in Chengdu on the 8th April.

It seems curious that after a journey that took more than 2 months, Fred and George spent less than a month in Chengdu before leaving on the 3rd May. He spent that time exploring the site and its complications and, in a frenzy of meetings, getting to know the people on the ground, having discussions with the university, local government and church and missionary organisations. He also found time to draw up plans for the governor of the province for buildings in the Shaocheng Park and to discuss with him the concept of garden cities (a movement that Fred was closely involved with in Britain). He also helped with the design of other buildings, for example the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building off Chunxi Road.

The journey back took even longer. He travelled with his brother, by wupan (small houseboat) to Ichang where they transferred to a steamer that arrived in Shanghai on the 27th May. His brother returned home by ship, but Fred travelled, via Japan, Hong Kong and Honolulu, to San Francisco (9th July) and then went by train to Toronto and New York (21st July) for talks with the missionary groups funding the project. He finally returned home at the end of July 1913.

Fred never returned to China. But he continued to drive the project, receiving and sending from his offices at 11 Hammersmith Terrace in London countless letters, photographs and plans. Nothing was too small for his attention, he specified precise details of the decoration on the buildings. He also faced challenges, such as the discovery of old tombs that necessitated modification of the plans and negotiations with the local community. It is incredible to think that such a large and complicated project could be directed remotely, by letter, but Fred carried on working on the buildings of West China Union University until his death in 1927, when his son, Douglas Woodville Rowntree, took over.

Workers in 1915

While Fred was the architectural driver of the project it is of course important to remember others involved in the building. He worked with colleagues both in London (most notably his son Douglas and also Frank Osler who did many of the drawings) but more importantly the local people in Chengdu who had to turn his plans into reality. This included local managers and hundreds of craftsmen, workers and labourers who played their part in the enterprise. In addition other architects have contributed to the campus, 4 of the buildings described in this book were not designed by Fred.

Atherton Building

Who was Fred Rowntree [iii]? In 1913 he was a well-established architect, recognised for his work in the Arts and Crafts style that was popular in Britain. The Arts and Crafts movement built on the ideas and works of William Morris and others and emphasised the importance of hand-made, crafted, articles, in contrast to objects that were mass produced in factories. In architecture it encouraged the use of traditional building techniques, a simplicity of design, the use of local materials and a resistance to adhering to any one imposed architectural style. There was a political aspect to the Arts and Crafts movement, in addition to the concern about the impact of industrialisation, its followers were motivated by a desire to humanise both industry and the local setting people lived in and many had socialist tendencies.

Much of this Arts and Crafts heritage can be seen in his designs for West China Union University. His plans had been criticised by the Senate of the University who wanted ‘modern western’ buildings. But his adherence to the Arts and Crafts principles meant that he tried hard to understand local traditions, materials and building styles. He spent time on his travels investigating these, and from items he bought back from his travels we know he studied Chinese architecture. The result is seen in the buildings that are described in this book, which are a fusion of the British Arts and Crafts and traditional Chinese designs.

Fred Rowntree was born in the North Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough to a family of grocers. His wider family included the Rowntree relatives who were based in York who are well known in Britain as chocolate makers, as well as philanthropists and social reformers. A very important aspect of Fred’s life was that the family were Quakers. The Religious Society of Friends (the official name for Quakers) is a religious denomination that are characterised by not holding any doctrinal belief. While Quakers come from a Christian tradition they do not have a creed or set of beliefs that are required by worshippers. They have a strong commitment to pacifism, social responsibility and simplicity of life. In Quaker services (which do not take place in churches but in meeting houses) there is no priest or minister, nor any set order of service, but the Friends (as they call each other) sit in silence until someone is moved to say or share something with the others present.

Clock Tower

His Quaker roots deeply influenced the work that Fred did, much of which was motivated by his sense of social responsibility. He was a prime mover in setting up Jordans, a model village that was built and run by its residents. He designed prefabricated homes for refugees in World War I, and helped set up a centre for rehabilitation of injured soldiers. One of his greatest interests was Hampshire House, a club that offered recreation, education and workshops for men and women from one of the most deprived areas of London. Many of the letters he sent back from China were to people involved in Hampshire House. In China he was similarly motivated by a desire to give people the opportunity of a university education that was relevant to their needs.

Those needs have changed over time, and so has the University. West China Union University has evolved, and the site is now a prestigious medical school, part of Sichuan University. This book shows how the buildings of the original university have been used in different ways, and some of the inspirational stories of people who have learned and worked in these buildings. The campus has continued to be relevant to many generations of students and staff, and it is gratifying to think of the impact they will have had locally, nationally and internationally.

Ceremony at Administrative Building

Fred Rowntree was our great-grandfather (RMG) and great-great grandfather (AJTG). Andrew has been lucky to visit Sichuan University twice, and, as an academic, enjoyed seeing the research, learning and, in the associated hospitals, medical treatment that is taking place on the campus. Richenda briefly visited the campus in 1979, though access at that time was limited. We are sure that Fred Rowntree would be quietly pleased to see that the buildings that he designed are still functional, and appreciated for their beauty and architectural merit.

AJTG next to foundation stone, with picture of it being laid

On his last visit Andrew was able, with his wife Professor Catherine Urch, to give to the University a collection of plans, photos, drawings and documents relating to the building of the campus that have been looked after for many years by Richenda. In this book, Qi Yanan and Luo Junhe have drawn on these sources, as well as others, to tell the story of 15 of the historic buildings on the campus. This book shows just how much difference a university can make to people and to communities. While Fred spent only a short time in Chengdu, we feel that his influence lives on through these buildings. The places that we go to school or university are very important to us. Those of us who have been lucky, and privileged, to be educated in beautiful buildings can carry the memories of them with us for the rest of our lives. The buildings that made up West China Union University, and which are now part of Sichuan University, will be imprinted in the minds of alumni, many of whom will be living and working far from Chengdu but will feel that connection with the place where they were educated.

A.J.T. George & R.M. George

[i] Details of Fred Rowntree’s journey to Chengdu are largely drawn from letters he sent to family and friends that are in the possession of RMG. [ii] When place names have changed we have used the name that Fred Rowntree would have used, with the modern name in parentheses the first time. [iii] For a biography of Fred Rowntree see: Robson, P (2014) Fred Rowntree Architect: Some Notes on his Life and Buildings. York: Newby Books.


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