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."
It is, everyone agrees, a big mess, and the little house is caught in the centre of it. Part of the problem is that the Binning House — considered hugely important by anyone who knows anything about modernist architecture — is under the stewardship of a group that is more concerned with nature preservation.
"We don't want to sell any of the properties, but if you compare the sale of a house and preserving and repairing it, versus having saving a salmon stream from damage, our obligation is to nature preservation," says Mr. Shields. "That's TLC's first and primary mandate."
For his part, Mr. Wall says that when he heard the TLC had applied for creditor protection, he quickly moved to purchase the house in order to save it. He says he wants to do all necessary repairs and a restoration, and he'll respect the heritage designation and will consult with heritage experts on a plan.
"I'm buying it with eyes open in that respect," said Mr. Wall. "My intention is to restore the home as best we can."
He hasn't got so far as to address who would live at the house, or whether it would be open to the public.
"I don't know. I haven't developed a long-term business plan. I think the best answer [for saving it] is a private individual, and hopefully it's me. I can't comment on what rights the TLC has to sell it, but I'm quite excited about how many people care about the house — that means there is real concurrence in the arts and architecture community on the value of this home."
One high-profile member of that community is Phyllis Lambert, philanthropist and founding director of the Canadian Centre of Architecture, who spoke on the phone from Montreal. Ms. Lambert, a member of the Bronfman family, is an architecture expert who's been protecting heritage most of her life.
"There is no house like it in Canada," said Ms. Lambert, who knows the house, and was friends with Jessie Binning. "It is so shocking. It just seems so incredible. The house was given to a not-for-profit group in trust, to be held for the public good. It has been designated as a National Historic Site … How can such a thing happen? This is crazy."
The Binning House was built between 1939 and 1941 after Bertrand returned from studying with artist Henry Moore in 1939. Inspired by the new modernism movement, he set about creating the 1,500-square-foot West Vancouver home with a waterfront view, built-in furniture pieces, a long curved gallery hall and a subtle though overt lack of right angles.
The exterior and interior wall murals painted by Binning are intact, the cedar trims and hardware are worn into a lovely patina, the famous fireplace where artists and writers such as Earle Birney convened regularly is still there, as is his art studio and the entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooks the glinting ocean and Point Grey beyond.
The view would have been the same for the Binning House back in the 1940s, but without as many trees obstructing it.
But the house is also showing serious signs of disrepair – there are cracks in the corners, paint is peeling, it feels drafty and the big, tiered garden is completely overgrown. It feels like the house that time forgot.
Vancouver was a relatively new city when it was built.
The modernist home, featured in the documentary Coast Modern, cost about $5,000 to construct, according to Adele Weder, who did her masters thesis on the Binning House as part of her architectural studies. She's also founding director of the West Coast Modern Heritage Society.
"I got to know Jessie really well and she wanted the house in the public realm, to keep it as a community resource," says Ms. Weder.
Ms. Lambert echoes that opinion.
"It's the first really modern house on the West Coast," says Ms. Lambert.
"It's a beautiful little house. Jessie's idea was this house should be as part of the public realm, where artists and poets and historians and general people could come and discuss the qualities of the place and the environment as they used to do when he lived there.
"She felt this was an important way of creating a more sophisticated society on the West Coast. She cherished that place, obviously."
Editor's note: The print version of this story was missing a photo credit. The contemporary photo of the Binning House was taken by photographer Simon Scott.