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Jessie and Bert Binning relaxing at their home, circa 1960. (Canadian Centre for Architecture)
Jessie and Bert Binning relaxing at their home, circa 1960. (Canadian Centre for Architecture)

Binning House sale sparks court challenge Add to ...

One of Canada’s most famous houses, the Binning House, is as much a home as it is a museum. And although the modest house is nestled in the heart of residential West Vancouver, off a street that feels more like a lane, it is a hugely significant landmark - believed to be the only private house to be deemed a national historic site.

As former owner Jessie Binning had intended in her will, it’s been accessible to the public over the years, usually one day a year as part of a tour.

Mrs. Binning, who died in 2007, wanted the home that was built by her famous artist husband Bertrand Charles Binning, to be preserved in its original splendour for generations of art and architecture-loving types who may otherwise never get the chance to look inside one of the earliest modernist houses.

After her death, it was donated to non-profit The Land Conservancy, whose mandate was to maintain and protect the house as a public landmark. This week, it came to light that the Conservancy had agreed to sell the house to developer Bruno Wall, who offered $1.6 million. Mr. Wall, a collector of Binning’s art, intends to restore and preserve the famous house.

However, if the house became private property, it may no longer be open to the public, and it would no longer be protected, says Stephen Mikicich, manager of community planning for the District of West Vancouver.

The District, which has maintained a close watch on the house over the years, is part of a legal action to block the sale of the Binning House.

West Vancouver was once a treasure trove of modernist architecture, and too many midcentury modern homes have come down over the years, put at risk by high real estate values and the current demand for huge houses. Arthur Erickson’s Graham House, demolished several years ago, was one of them.

The modernist houses tended to be small, with ocean front views. They were built at a time when West Vancouver was more difficult to get to, and land was comparatively cheaper than in Vancouver. The District is offering incentives for owners to preserve the old modernist homes, with some success.

“A big part of West Vancouver’s heritage is it is the birthplace of West Coast modernism, and this particular house is very iconic as one of the earliest homes built in a modern style,” says Mr. Mikicich. “The irony is, technically it was already saved and protected, but because of the circumstances, it’s been made vulnerable.”

The result has been massive blowback from heritage groups, and particularly, the District of West Vancouver, the Attorney General and the University of B.C., who recently moved to block the sale in the Supreme Court of B.C. The case will go to a three-day hearing in mid December.

John Shields, director of operations for The Land Conservancy (TLC), couldn’t say what Mr. Wall’s intentions are for the house, but he did say the developer is still very interested in purchasing it.

“It seemed that it would be a sale straight through the court, until the people with different points of view came to light, and I guess once we saw who it was that was opposing and why, we understood the grounds for that. But it hasn’t changed my mind that our proposal is the best thing for the house.”

The other problem is that the house needs at least $200,000 worth of repairs. Mr. Shields says that when the TLC took over the house, it had been counting on public donations to keep it going, but those never materialized. As well, Mr. Shields says they haven’t received much in government grant money. The TLC, which owns $40 million in properties and is $7.5 million in debt, has applied for creditor protection, and needs to sell off assets.

“The equation is pretty straightforward,” he says. “Some of the properties have to be liquidated and it seems to us that the heritage properties are the least damaging to sell.

“This proposal is a far better proposal for the house than anything that anybody has to offer, including the government and Attorney General. It’s sad to see what is happening to this historic monument … it’s very sad. There’s been some [grant money], but nowhere near enough to meet the basic maintenance. We’re looking at the Wall offer as a win-win situation. The house wins, the community wins, and TLC may have enough money to keep going.”

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