The new 'Earl' of Shaughnessy breathes life into historic home

When Mingfei Zhao bought 'The Rosemary', a magnificent but run-down Vancouver heritage house, he says he set out to shatter one of this city's biggest stereotypes: that people from China are serial destroyers of older properties.

Chinese billionaire restores Vancouver 'castle', shattering stereotypes of what foreign buyers do to old homes

Mingfei Zhao, a recent immigrant from China, is spending millions to restore one of Vancouver's most historic homes. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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.

"I want to protect and recover this house to make it stand here another 100 years."
The Rosemary, a 98-year-old home in Vancouver's Shaughnessy neighborhood is being completely restored by an immigrant from China. It takes a fish-eye lens to properly capture the size of the property. (Chris Corday/CBC)
The restoration of the Rosemary has already taken about three years, and the work is still ongoing. (Chris Corday/CBC)
The Rosemary is one of Vancouver's most recognizable homes. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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

The Arts and Crafts-style English manor home was built by liquor tycoon Albert Tulk in 1918 and named after his daughter. At the time of its construction, it was the largest and grandest home ever built in Vancouver.
The Rosemary, built in 1918 was named after original owner Albert Tulk's daughter. (Leonard Frank/Vancouver Public Library)
The Rosemary was originally built by liquor magnate Albert Tulk almost a century ago. (Vancouver Public Library)

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
The home's most striking feature, giving the property an almost castle-like appearance, comes from the arch and second-story bridge that connects the main house to an adjacent carriage house.
An arch through The Rosemary leads to the back of the property. (Chris Corday/CBC)
Inside, the entrance hall features a fireplace with a grand staircase, a two-storey foyer and a minstrel gallery where musicians could serenade arriving guests.
Zhao says his decision to buy and restore the Rosemary was inspired by his love of the TV show Downton Abbey. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Derelict state

By the time Zhao bought the property the place was unlivable.

"It was basically in a complete derelict state," says Jim Perkins of FairTradeWorks, the builder hired by Zhao to tackle the renovation.
Jim Perkins of FairTradeWorks, the contractor involved in the restoration, says it's impossible to create a cost estimate for a job this big. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Some of the rooms had 20 coats of paint on them, since it had been used by the movie industry for years," said Perkins.

"It has been chopped and changed and basically left unattended."
Before (left) and after (right) the restoration of the Rosemary's Great Room. (FairTradeWorks/Chris Corday/CBC)
Before (left) and after (right) the restoration of the Rosemary's trim, wall and crown moldings. (FairTradeWorks/Chris Corday/CBC)

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.

"I liked the show very much. It may be not be a true story but I really like the society,  the culture and relations between people."
Zhao will live in the 16-bedroom heritage home with his son. (Chris Corday/CBC)
Zhao has already made three trips to England to buy art for the walls of the Rosemary. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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.

So far, with big ticket items like the kitchen and bathrooms still untouched, Zhao said he's already spent $6 million, and there's still likely a year and half more of spending left.
Restoration of the 14,000-square-foot home has already cost Zhao about $6 million. (Chris Corday/CBC)
The Rosemary's basement is also being completely finished to house the 'servants quarters'. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"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.

"I am amazed by the work that's been done," he said. 
The Rosemary's owner Mingfei Zhao says new immigrants should try to protect Vancouver's heritage. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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.

He says he hopes he and his university-aged son can move in within the next year and half. The new Earl, as it were, of his restored Shaughnessy manor.
Zhao plans to invite members of the public to his home for fundraising parties after the restoration is complete, raising money for other heritage protection projects. (Chris Corday/CBC)

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

With files from Daisy Xiong