Art of preservation helps heritage serve art

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am

So what do 12 apostles, a cow called Yetske and the city's freemasons have in common?

The answer: the former French mission building, Bethanie, and the two former Dairy Farm cow sheds alongside in Pokfulam are being turned into performance premises for the Academy of Performing Arts (APA).

On Wednesday, the two cow sheds will be named the Wellcome Theatre ahead of a soft opening of the sheds and Bethanie in September. They will provide extra space for the APA which is bursting at the seams at its Wan Chai premises, which was designed for 600 students but now holds 750.

With $74.2 million approved by the Legislative Council in 2003 and a further $2.2 million contribution from the Dairy Farm group among other donations, the original exterior of the buildings will be maintained, but the interior has been renovated.

'These two cow sheds date back to the 1880s. The Dairy Farm company was formed in 1886,' said Philip Soden, the APA's associate director (operations). Bethanie dates back to 1885.

To retain the dairy theme, a cow stall has been saved inside each shed, each holding a dairy cow statue made in Switzerland and modelled on 'Yetske', one of the 1890s herd.

'The two cow sheds formed part of a huge network of Dairy Farm, which included a pig farm and staff quarters and stretched from Sassoon Road to Wah Fu,' said Mr Soden.

Seven of the original stained-glass windows from the Bethanie chapel are to be returned from their current home in Zetland Hall, the freemasons' headquarters.

'They were removed from Bethanie chapel in 1974 by Hongkong Land. Five pieces are also in storage at the Architectural Services Department,' he said.

As well as the stained-glass windows, Mr Soden has been trying to track statues of the 12 apostles that used to be in the chapel and has asked for help from the public in this quest. Three of the statues are now at St Clare's Girls School and copies will be made of those. But the others have disappeared.

'They are all about 90cm high, they have a distinctive square base with the corners cut [to form an irregular octagon] and the saint's name is written on the base in Latin in Gothic script. So far we have located St Matthew, St Paul and St Thomas. If we can find the remaining statues, we would like to take copy castings of them to put in the Bethanie chapel,' said Mr Soden.

While he admits that it is probably easier to create art performance premises from scratch, 'it wouldn't be as interesting. It's very challenging and extremely satisfying. The heritage itself is art'.