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Sometimes it's hard to be fabulous.

Just ask the Filberg House, the 1959 clifftop aerie designed by Arthur Erickson overlooking the Georgia Strait near Comox, on Vancouver Island.

Dubbed "the most fabulous house in Canada" in a 1961 issue of Canadian Homes, it has suffered tragedy on an operatic scale.

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But its architecturally happy ending is more fairy tale than grand opera.

Its intriguing story was revealed by the celebrated architect himself during a bus tour last week organized by Vancouver's Arthur Erickson House and Garden Foundation, a charitable group founded to preserve the architect's home and signature garden, whose educational mandate now extends to tours of his buildings.

They were heading north on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to see the end result of the house's painstaking restoration. Among the aesthetic pilgrims on the bus were former Canada Council president Timothy Porteous and West Vancouver steel magnate Hugo Eppich, for whom Erickson designed a steel house in 1981.

"This is a unique historical opportunity," Porteous said, "like going to Falling Water with Frank Lloyd Wright."

"It's like rediscovering one of one's long-lost children," said Erickson, now 78. "As much love and care as you put into raising children, I put into buildings -- especially that one."

Erickson built the house for Rob Filberg, a handsome young lumber baron whose 1950s society marriage to Marie Foley had broken up after only a week.

Plunged into a depression after the ensuing scandal, Filberg asked Erickson to build him a retreat on a spectacular site he had bought up island, located on 200-foot sand cliffs overlooking the Strait of Georgia and with a view of the Comox Glacier.

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"My mission with the house was to try to save a lost soul -- Rob Filberg," Erickson said. "I never would have done it if I hadn't felt that his life depended on this house. That was the vanity of it -- thinking that you could change anything with the right design."

Filberg himself had high hopes for the light-filled house, imagining it as a West Coast version of Pugwash, the Nova Scotia estate that hosted Cold War meetings between world leaders.

"He was a visionary," Erickson said. "A man ahead of his time."

Erickson conceived the house on two axes, one running north to south in a delicate elongation that made the 2,500 square feet seem much bigger, the other running east-west. "Coming up here again, I realize that of all my work, this was the most derivative of Frank Lloyd Wright," Erickson said, "the way it nestles into the site and its long horizontal lines."

Locally quarried granite was used in the living-room walls. Tropical hardwoods such as African zebrawood and Philippine mahogany were offset by local lattices made of local yellow cedar, which were featured indoors and out, along with 16 cedar barrel lights on poles, blurring the distinction between the two spaces and emphasizing the house's one-ness with the site. The cedar itself has a spiritual association: "I chose it because it's used in Japanese Shinto temples and for its durability in this weather," Erickson said.

Partly inspired by a visit to Spain's Alhambra, Erickson's design was infused with a subtle Moorish sensibility: a curved ceiling, arabesqued entranceways, sheltered alcoves. In fact, its 1961 appearance in Canadian Homes was subheaded "a gossamer palace from 1001 nights."

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But the glossy photos were of an empty house. Filberg, suffering from increasing alcoholism, had died alone three months before its completion.

"I got a call one night at 3 a.m.," Erickson recounted, his voice wavering slightly with emotion. "I never knew who it was, but the next day I found out that Rob had died."

The house sat empty until 1962, when it was bought by the Smitheringale family, who lived there for more than two decades. In the late 1980s, the house was sold to surgeon Noah Carpenter. Carpenter began fiddling with Erickson's design, starting with interior details such as the sculpted brass fireplace. Its ceiling-high hood was dismantled with a blow torch. The delicately carved lattices were removed with a chainsaw. Carpenter then began adding exterior stucco walls. The result was a slow entombing of Erickson's original design and a severing of the connection to the site. And then came the final aesthetic indignity: The whole place was covered in a coat of pastel pink.

Erickson knew nothing of the changes until he recommended that some friends go see it. Photographer Simon Scott, a documenter of Erickson's work and current president of the House and Garden Foundation, also paid a visit and was "horrified."

In 1999, a genie appeared in the form of Doug Field, the next-door neighbour who had known the Smitheringales and had witnessed the house's transformation. Field, who made his fortune with fishing lures -- he invented the "buzz bomb" and the "zinger," knew a classic when he saw one. He bought the house from Carpenter and made it his mission to restore it to its mid-century glory.

Working day and night for 2½ years, Field removed the exterior stucco walls to reveal the original framing. Scott was able to procure the original Erickson drawings from the University of Calgary, but Field's restoration was largely inspired by his own memories and fuelled by detective work.

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He tracked down some of the fireplace parts at the Comox home of one of the removal men Carpenter had hired. He found the lattice screens in a pile of firewood on the property, and refinished them, cannibalizing parts to recreate all but one of them.

It's an effort Erickson praises as "stupendous" and which won Field an award from the Heritage Society of B.C., presented during last week's tour.

"You know this place might still become a West Coast Pugwash, where world leaders could gather," said Erickson, a breathtaking view of Georgia Strait visible through a window behind him. "You could have Bush and Saddam meet here to discuss things. Why not? They could really have a good tête-à-tête in a place like this."

The Arthur Erickson House and Garden Foundation plans another tour of the Filberg House, as well as the recently unveiled Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash. Call 604-738-4195 for information.

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