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historic preservation

The esteemed and outspoken Canadian architect Arthur Erickson at one of his buildings in Vancouver on Feb. 6, 2001.JOHN LEHMANN

The cottage is small, one-storey, a fixer-upper on a large parcel dominated by a garden and a pond. Spread across two lots in Vancouver's coveted Point Grey neighbourhood, the property would be prized by developers eager to knock down the house and build a massive residence on each lot or perhaps even townhouses.

But this little bungalow, mostly hidden from view by a tall hedge and trees, was once the beloved refuge of acclaimed architect Arthur Erickson, the garden's serene setting helping to inspire designs for what would become world-renowned buildings.

Now, nearly four years after the architect's death, his home is in jeopardy: Unless preservationists find donors to combat a mountain of debt, the modest cottage will face the wrecking ball.

"This was the locus of creativity for Canada's most famous architect," said Donald Luxton, president of the Heritage Vancouver Society.

"It is a unique site with a rich history and one of the first true West Coast modern gardens," Mr. Luxton said.

The trouble falls on the Arthur Erickson Foundation, which formed in 1992 to come to the rescue of Mr. Erickson after he filed for personal bankruptcy. Peter Wall, a Vancouver developer and philanthropist, stepped in to issue a mortgage in 1997 to the architect, who was on the verge of losing his property. Mr. Wall recently asked the foundation to repay the $350,000 loan to a company he controls, Wall Financial Corp., plus dig up more than $230,000 in interest owing.

"I looked after him when he was alive. The lenders basically would have foreclosed on his house," Mr. Wall said in an interview. "It never was a gift. I always said that. It was basically a loan."

Directors at the non-profit foundation were hoping Mr. Wall would have a last-minute change of heart. But Wall Financial has now recouped the mortgage principal and interest, forcing the foundation to secure a fresh mortgage this month from Vancity credit union. The first monthly payment on the new loan is due in mid-April.

Mr. Erickson bought the Vancouver property for $11,000 in 1957. Today the land is valued at more than $3.1-million, while the house is assessed for tax purposes at only $6,300.

Mr. Erickson enjoyed years of living the good life in such places as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal. Known as one of Canada's finest modernist architects, he is famous for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Robson Square and the downtown Law Courts complex in Vancouver; he also created icons across Canada and around the world, including Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

But the architect's Vancouver home remained his sanctuary, long after the garden stopped being a magnet for lavish parties with celebrity guests from Pierre Trudeau to Rudolf Nureyev.

Turning the house into a museum is one possibility being explored to pay homage to Mr. Erickson. "He is Canada's greatest architect, and he is one of the greatest architects of the period," said Phyllis Lambert, the foundation's chairwoman and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. She added that the property could become a venue for poetry readings or talks about landscapes, architecture and the environment. Ms. Lambert helped Mr. Erickson financially in 1997 and is still owed $150,000 in principal on a second mortgage, though she has not requested any funds back from the foundation.

Bob Rennie, a Vancouver condo marketer who brokered the mortgage between Mr. Wall and the foundation, said there are many good causes that deserve funding, but the reality is that dollars are already being stretched in philanthropy. "The historic monument is not that dilapidated house," said Mr. Rennie, who is wary that the home and garden might become a money pit for renovations and improvements.

The foundation wants to stave off any talk of demolition until at least 2015, while acknowledging that the large parcel would be a magnet for developers.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Erickson connected a small cottage built in 1924 with a newer single-car garage on the site, said biographer David Stouck, a retired English professor who taught at the Erickson-designed Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. Most of the property is filled by the garden. which is mostly hidden from public view due to a large hedge in the front and trees towering over a fence on the side. The residence, which has no basement, is tucked away at the back, immediately next to an alley.

Supporters of the house and garden want to rehabilitate the property to its former glory. Mr. Erickson's long-time home is tiny – about 850 square feet. The property holds a unique place in Canada's history, said Simon Scott, who served as Mr. Erickson's architectural photographer and became a close friend over the decades. If the foundation is forced to sell due to financial pressures, an important piece of Canadiana will be bulldozed to clear the way for residential housing, he warned.

"Arthur dug out here to create this pond and build that mound over there," Mr. Scott said as he toured the property with the sun shining on two ducks on the pond. "The water seems to disappear around a corner, which gives the illusion of more space than there really is." Near the pond, there is a platform where Mr. Erickson would look at the moon in moments of contemplation, said Mr. Scott, who serves as one of the foundation's 16 directors.

Inside the house, Mr. Scott pointed to Mr. Erickson's penchant for experimenting with materials, from the leather tiles on the bathroom wall to suede wall tiles in the living room. A ladder leads to a bed in a small loft. A friend of one of Mr. Erickson's two nephews is currently renting the house, helping to maintain the property.

"In no way has Peter Wall done anything unkind or improper. He has done what he has the absolute right to do," Mr. Scott said. "But it would be nice for a man of that stature in Vancouver to be philanthropic by making a donation to the foundation. That is his prerogative."