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Effort continues to save peculiar home of Arthur Erickson

Centennial celebrations carry on for the esteemed architect, with a panel discussion at North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery on Wednesday.

On the corner of a quiet street in Point Grey sits one of the most peculiar residential properties in all of Metro Vancouver.

Where the fences, paths and front doors of neighbouring homes otherwise face each other, a towering hedge of cypress looms over the sidewalk on 4195 West 14th Ave.

The entrance to this fortress of flora is a wooden door tucked near the back of the property. If granted entry, inside you’ll find a landscape marked with hulking rhododendrons, pine and cedar. Circling the lot is a path, passing behind a lush berm at the north end of the property and a pond freckled with lily pads in its centre.

A weathered dwelling sits at the extreme north of the property, measuring just 680 square feet.

Such a description is likely to cause a conniption for many working in today’s home-building community. But this was once home to one of Canada’s most celebrated architects, the late Arthur Erickson.

After facing many challenges, its patrons are continuing efforts to preserve this unrepeatable piece of architectural history for decades to come.

The renewed push to shine a light on Erickson’s home comes as the building and property are in dire need of maintenance, and wells of funding dry up. The great architect’s legacy is also receiving special attention this year, as the Arthur Erickson Foundation throws a centennial celebration to honour 100 years since his birth.

Festivities include guided tours of the home through the summer, and a number of other events such as Site | Light | Cadence | Space | Arthur Erickson Revisited, a panel discussion at The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver on July 10, organized by the West Coast Modern League and the West Vancouver Museum of Art.

Erickson home a space for learning and community, architects say

As pressures to increase density reach a fever pitch, you might wonder what value such a resolutely un-dense residence could possibly hold.

But in speaking with architects who have followed in Erickson’s footsteps, his former home not only serves as place of learning and discussion for today’s architectural community, it’s also a treasure trove of practical lessons to apply to the designs of living spaces today.

It’s the fate of the home, along with Erickson projects like Smith House II, to become catalysts for conversations around architecture, said Clinton Cuddington, director with the AEF.

“Being able to be immersed in the environments to have those conversations is the most poignant way to tell that tale,” he said.

During his day, Erickson would use his garden as an intellectual hub, inviting other architects, artists and politicians to wax philosophical while strolling the grounds or immersed in a ground-level hot tub.

“I think that’s the best way to preserve buildings, not to turn them into shrines but to make them continue to function as they were set out to do,” Cuddington said.

Despite the garden area taking up most of the lot – the polar opposite to the multi-unit residential zoning being pushed by the provincial government – Erickson’s home reminds us of how it is important to create places to connect with nature in urban settings, and not be trapped in apartments, Cuddington added.

“We’re seeing some of that. We’re seeing displaced landscaping put into different pockets in buildings, but for the most part, people are slamming a green roof on it, putting a daycare up on the top of the building and caging in kids so they don’t fall to their death,” he said. “It’s not going to work. It’s not going to make for a good city.”

Home was saved after financial woes took hold

Unlike the home that stands as a shadow of his life today, less is known about how Erickson spent his later years, after declaring bankruptcy in 1992.

Late that February, landscape architect Liz Watts went to view a property in her neighbourhood.

“I walked over there … and I was absolutely floored that it was his house,” she said. “Then it became apparent that it was bankruptcy sale.”

Amid a swarm of real estate agents wielding brick-sized cellphones, Watts hurried to launch a publicity campaign to save the home, while bringing other supporters to her ranks including Erickson collaborator Cornelia Oberlander and Phyllis Lambert, founding director emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

It was a complicated situation with three mortgages on the home, but the group of Erickson supporters managed to pay out the other parties, and years later – this year, as it happens – pay off the mortgage completely.

While he was a talented designer, Erickson was known to be drawn more by the artistry in his projects than budgetary concerns. He also lived somewhat of a rockstar lifestyle. Those habits would eventually crush him under a multi-million-dollar mountain of debt.

“Arthur’s lifestyle became very extravagant,” Watts said. “He had homes in different locations – one in Toronto, one in Fire Island (New York), one in Los Angeles – very fancy cars, and his lifestyle exceeded his ability to pay for it.”

Thanks to the efforts of his friends and supporters, Erickson was able to continue living in the home, renting it from the foundation as he continued his practice. Eventually he developed dementia, but lived in the Vancouver home until his last year of life in 2009.

“It gave him peace, and we had a stable arrangement,” Watts said. “I think it was enormously important to him because he continued to do good work.”

Now, as a century has passed since Erickson’s birth, the construction of his home stretches even further back in time, to around 1917, and the wear and tear is showing.

“It needs to be restored. It needs a major, major overhaul,” she said.

Currently plans are underway to produce an updated conservation plan for the property, which can then be used to secure helpful heritage designations and grants. After restoring the property, the foundation intends to establish an endowment fund for future work.

To make sense of the great efforts to preserve the home, Watts points to a letter penned by Lambert in 1992, imploring then-Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell to designate the property as a historic site.

“In this converted garage and its attendant land, Erickson experimented with ideas of building and landscape that have been highly influential in architecture and garden architecture,” she wrote. “They are a demonstration of how to make the most of a standard city lot and to create a private meditative world within it.”

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This story has been amended to correct the name of the mayor of Vancouver in 1992. It was Gordon Campbell, not Larry Cambell, who became mayor in 2002.