A building that few of us were aware of until its owner wanted to demolish it would not seem worthy of preservation, let alone giving public access to. But the Pok Fu Lam mansion Jessville is no ordinary structure - it is a rare example of Italian renaissance architecture that offers a glimpse into how the well-heeled in our city lived eight decades ago. Under a deal with the government in 2009, it was to be preserved as a clubhouse for residents of two new multi-storey buildings and 50 people could visit each month by appointment. Financial circumstances have changed, though, and under a revised plan, it will be turned into apartments and the public will be shut out.
Authorities do not object to the changes, despite the original agreement. Instead of a 21-storey building and another of 17 floors, only the latter is now planned. Whether as a clubhouse or apartments, Jessville will still be preserved. A viewing platform for visitors is planned in place of permitting access.
That seems a good compromise given eight years of bargaining. At one stage, the government made the building a proposed monument, which prevented its demolition, but under a reclassification as a grade three building, it has no such protection. That its owner has been convinced of its historic worth and no longer wants to tear it down is obviously a victory. Keeping to the original agreement and even allowing more people greater access would strengthen that commitment.
The value of land in Hong Kong is such that few buildings can be considered safe from demolition. Jessville is one of the scant instances where conservation has won. But allowing public access is not a matter authorities have always been especially good at negotiating for, with the Heritage 1881 complex in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty being examples of it being done poorly. The original terms for the Pok Fu Lam mansion were similarly not done with the public's best interests in mind; now that the owner wants to change his side of the agreement, an opportunity has arisen for a new deal on better access.