The new 'Earl' of Shaughnessy breathes life into historic home
Chinese billionaire restores Vancouver 'castle', shattering stereotypes of what foreign buyers do to old homes
When Mingfei Zhao bought 'the Rosemary', a magnificent but run-down Vancouver heritage house, he says he set out to shatter one of the city's biggest stereotypes — that people from China are serial destroyers of older properties.
"I liked it at first sight, "said Zhao of the 14,000-square-foot Shaughnessy mansion on Selkirk Street he purchased for just over $11 million three years ago.
Zhao is a retired property developer from Beijing who told CBC News he made his first fortune trading in flax and grains before moving on to real estate.
Now 60, he admits to a net worth of over $1 billion Cdn and says he chose to retire to Vancouver for the "clean air" and good education for his son.
He took CBC News on a tour of the mansion recently to proudly show off the work that's been done.
Astronomical upkeep costs
In between the First and Second World Wars, the home served as the residence of British Columbia's lieutenant governor, but with astronomical heating and upkeep costs, few owners afterward were able to maintain it. It eventually ended up in the hands of an order of Catholic nuns who ran it as a retreat for over 50 years.
- Watch Chris Brown's documentary on the 'Earl of Shaughnessy' Monday on The National at 10 p.m. on CBC Television and 9 p.m. on News Network
By the time Zhao bought the property the place was unlivable.
"Some of the rooms had 20 coats of paint on them, since it had been used by the movie industry for years," said Perkins.
Heritage consultant Donald Luxton, who's overseeing the restoration project on behalf of the City of Vancouver, calls the amount of work required to bring the home back to its original state "mindboggling."
And he says it's even more surprising that someone such as Zhao has emerged as a champion of Vancouver heritage.
"It's unusual that someone so recent to Vancouver would purchase a piece of its history and agree to take this project on," says Luxton.
He says it flies in the face of the common characterization of Asian buyers as people who don't care about heritage, always tearing down and building new homes rather than preserving existing ones.
"I think it means we have to be careful when we make generalized statements about people who recently moved to this city about what they do or don't do. This is a very positive benefit."
Vancouver's Downton Abbey
Standing in the grand drawing room, Zhao chuckles when he tells the story of his love-at-first-sight relationship with "The Rosemary."
"I liked it because I was watching Downton Abbey at the time," he told CBC News through a Mandarin translator.
Zhao said he felt he had the financial means and an opportunity to make a statement about the need to preserve historic Canadian properties when possible.
"Old homes in Beijing were torn down. People regret it now," he said.
"As new landed immigrants, we should make some contributions to protecting and repairing heritage architecture."
Budget an "evolving beast"
Only someone with the pockets of a billionaire could have afforded to take this project on.
"We all want these houses preserved. We want to see preservation occur, but it's not going to happen without someone with deep pockets," said Luxton.
"It's extraordinarily expensive if you are going to do it properly."
Jim Perkins the contractor calls budgeting for the project to "an evolving beast."
"Every day we seem to uncover something new. We have completely re-plumbed the place and re-wired the place."
Some of that new wiring had to be fished up to 60 meters behind walls to preserve intricate woodwork on the exterior.
The new 'Earl' of Shaughnessy
If the huge bills are keeping Zhao awake at night, he's not letting on.
Upstairs, in the restored library, Zhao has already set up a computer and started replacing some of the rows of leather-bound English books with ones written in Chinese.
With files from Daisy Xiong