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August 8, 2011

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Restoring a grand mansion

TWENTY-SEVEN years in the making, the US$45 million renovation of a 150-year-old Taiwanese homestead is finally nearing completion.

The Lin Family Mansion - a complex of five buildings on 3 hectares - is one of Taiwan's most important historical sites, a rare example of the ornate architectural style favored by nobles from southern China in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The renovation has been a painstaking process, with workers facing a variety of challenges - not least a devastating earthquake - to return the 19th-century structures to their original glory.

The complex in Wufeng, an hour by high-speed rail from Taipei, is expected to open to the public at the end of 2011. It sits near a scenic mountain and a lake retreat. Members of the Lin family still live in the mansion and will share their quarters with what the government expects will be an onslaught of tourists.

A family of unrivaled wealth and political influence in central Taiwan, the Lins began building their homestead in 1858.

Like many early immigrants to the island off China's coast, the ancestors of the Lin family arrived from Fujian Province. To construct their homes, they brought workers from their native province as well as building materials including cedar wood and large slabs of granite.

The main structure in the original complex - the Gongbao Official Residence - was built by military strongman, General Lin Wen-cha, who gained fame leading militiamen against pirates in Taiwan and then, on the Chinese mainland, fighting rebel forces in the Taiping Rebellion. Lin died there in battle in 1864, and his son - also a general - completed the homestead's construction.

The Gongbao Official Residence consisted of five courtyards and 108 rooms - a scale reserved for top officials. It was characterized by elaborately painted and meticulously carved doors, with pillars extending up to the ceilings. The main reception area was adorned by impressive portraits, beautiful calligraphic scrolls and other high end works of art.

A central element in the residence was an exquisite theater and a grand banquet hall, which served as the center of the family's social life.

Though the Lins continued to live in the complex, through the Japanese occupation of the island and the Nationalist Party takeover in 1945, decades of neglect had reduced it to a shadow of its former self by the 1960s. Today, the mansion is the largest 19th-century structure left on the island.

Renovation work funded by the government began in 1984.

When work began, the theater, whose wooden beams locked seamlessly without nuts and bolts, was in ruins. Lai Chih-chang, a member of the team that took the lead in the restoration, says he had no idea how to replicate its former glory.

But in the attic of one of the houses, he found three dusty trunks containing glass negatives of the original structures that enabled architects to draw up a plan.

The restored theater features the original's upward sloping roof and a raised platform with gilded, intricate wood carvings. Under the ceiling is a multi-layered, octagonal dome that projects the building's acoustics from stage to audience.

Lai says the restoration has helped preserve an important regional style.

"This is the one mansion that has integrated various building arts in southern China," he says.

The project was nearly abandoned following a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit central Taiwan in 1999, when the work was nearly complete. The government wanted out, but architects and art lovers intervened, and the work continued, with additional government funding.


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