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Paul Wilson: Renos rolling on mansions billionaire left behind

Billionaire Michael Lee-Chin once had offices in a pair of fine homes in downtown Hamilton. They have been lonely places since he left, but now restorations are underway.
This home from the 1850's at Jackson and Caroline is where Michael Lee-Chin began to make his fortune. (Paul Wilson)

This billionaire departed the heart of Hamilton for Burlington 15 years ago, but the historic houses he left behind are both now getting the royal treatment.

Michael Lee-Chin is the guy who arrived from Jamaica in 1970 to study engineering at McMaster and went on to amass a fortune through his investment firm AIC . His motto: "Buy, hold and prosper."

His first offices were in a mansion at the corner of Jackson and Caroline, across from CHCH. The home was built a decade before Confederation and once featured a fountain out front. For 50 years, it was ruled over by the public-spirited Jennie Greening, wife of a Hamilton industrialist.

Lady Greening died in 1937 and gave the house to an organization for which she had great affection - the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

You can call them the IODE. They're still around, but their numbers have diminished. They eventually vacated the big house on Jackson. In the '80s, Lee-Chin moved in.

Fountain gone

Michael Lee-Chin didn't operate long from the mansion at James South and Markland, but it's still in the family. (Paul Wilson)

Out front, where the fountain once stood, a parking lot welcomed clients whose investments let them buy that Mercedes or Lexus. Lee-Chin's rise was meteoric and in 1993 he announced he would open new offices in another house with a history, this one at James South and Markland.

It's a Georgian beauty and a man named Frost was the first to make it his own. It was he who built the Royal Connaught in 1916.

In the 1940s, that home - One Markland - became the residence of the U.S. consul. By the 1950s, the house was the offices for Canada Life Assurance.

Lee-Chin's company moved in. But again, the business was going gangbusters. And in 1997, after just a few years at Markland, he announced AIC was leaving Hamilton for an 80,000-square-foot headquarters in Burlington.

Lonely places

Both old homes in the core have been lonely places for years now.

Lee-Chin had split from his wife Vera in 1990, after 16 years of marriage. And about seven years ago, she went to court to get a larger settlement. It was a public struggle for a time, and she wanted $725 million dollars.

Then there were the stories a few years ago of her wanting to put up a 27,000-square-foot home on Sulphur Springs Road in Ancaster. Neighbours objected, and the plan got downsized. She did build a home on Lover's Lane that was estimated at 10,000 square feet.

A couple of years ago, realtor Nigel Garcia was given the task of trying to lease out One Markland for Michael Lee-Chin. He said at the time that his client would be holding onto the property: "He doesn't want to sell this house. He knows the value. He knows the history."

Still in the family

It looks like a different scenario today. Re the ownership of both houses now, Garcia has this to say: "Let's put it this way - it's still in the family."

Over at Jackson and Caroline, there's extensive exterior work underway. Carpenters are now replacing rotted woodwork and the grounds are being landscaped by the same outfit that worked on Vera Lee-Chin's home on Lover's Lane. No evidence yet that they'll be putting back that long-ago fountain.

And at One Markland, Garcia says, there are renovations underway worth "close to $1 million." Hardwood floors, new electrical, new windows.

And when the work's all done at these two downtown mansions, what then?

"They could be leased, they could be sold," Garcia says. "The exit strategy is not yet known."

Paul.Wilson@CBC.ca | @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.