The West Coast Style lies in rubble
When it comes to saving Modernist houses, B.C. municipalities have few options
"Oh my freaking god," Stephanie La Porta said as she walked through the rubble that used to be the Ron Thom Southworth House on Thursday afternoon.
Ms. La Porta had just heard that her former house had been demolished, so she drove over to have a look. She and her husband Chris Poulter had only owned the house for a year, but they loved the design, with its fir plank ceilings, granite walls and floors, and the feeling of the open rooms, high up on a cliff, surrounded by ocean.
A clearly shocked Ms. La Porta looked around and saw the granite broken into pieces, under an excavator.
"It is so sad. I am pretty surprised that they didn't try to save some elements of it … It was so magical. You felt like you were on a boat, he designed it in such a beautiful way."
Ron Thom is considered one of Canada's greatest architects of Modern design, and a pioneer in what's come to be known as the West Coast Modern. West Vancouver was the playground for architects like Mr. Thom, with the area's huge lots and ocean views. But with the demolition of his Southworth House at 4190 Rose Cres. this week, many are complaining that the city isn't doing enough to save them.
The huge lots with ocean views are now targets for redevelopment. The Modernist architects of the day didn't care so much about house size as context. And Mr. Thom made dramatic use of a breathtaking site, with the house cantilevered out over a steep outcropping, its foundations anchored into the rock beneath. It must have cost a fortune to build.
"They had to adapt to the land, rather than making the land adapt to the home," says Ms. La Porta, who sold the house in 2011, after she and her husband found a waterfront property on Eagle Island. They then sold the Ron Thom house, built in 1956, to Xue Shi Wang for $1.880-million. The house was sold again in 2015 for $2.074-million to Wei Jin, according to land title records. And in May, 2016, Jason Bosa, son of developer Nat Bosa, purchased the property for $4.188-million. He still owns the property.
The house was considered a valuable heritage site by the city, or "primary building." But it wasn't on the heritage register. When city staff saw that the owner had applied for a demolition permit more than two months ago, council approved a 60-day protection order, or hold, on the permit, to buy time to negotiate with the owner. Through letters, emails and phone calls, the city offered up alternatives, such as infill housing and additional floor area. But the two-month hold lapsed on Sept. 22, and with a demolition permit issued, the house came down a few days later.
Mr. Bosa was reached on Thursday, but he declined to comment.
Senior community planner James Allan, says, in an effort to save heritage houses, the city has been issuing an increasing number of protection orders.
"The Ron Thom one on Rose Crescent generated more interest than the others," says Mr. Allan.
But all the orders have been equally unsuccessful in saving the houses.
"Unfortunately, once you get to the demolition permit stage, the homeowner is committed to a course of action."
Robert Lemon was one of many who had written to the Mayor and city council at West Vancouver regarding the pending demolition. Mr. Lemon is an architect and past chair of the B.C. chapter of Docomomo, an international non-profit for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods that represent the Modernist movement. Ron Thom, who died 31 years ago, is well known for the West Coast Style, but he's better known in eastern Canada for Toronto's Massey College and Peterborough's Trent University.
"His career is very important in Canadian architecture, and it's a pity and a loss that even a single house of his would be demolished," says Mr. Lemon. "It's quite a shame, and it's very distressing."
Mr. Lemon, a former senior heritage city planner, says the houses won't be saved without better incentives and specific zoning.
"They are generally quite small for the site. This is a common problem with particularly Modernist houses and the work of Barry Downs, Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, and Fred Hollingsworth in West Vancouver and on the north shore," he says. "They were often small, economical, experimental houses – modest, but beautifully designed. And they are a tremendous part of Canada's architectural legacy, in that postwar era, which should be given greater support in conservation.
"The municipality should have said in this case, 'We are going to require protection through designation with a negotiated package with the owner to make it attractive and viable for them to proceed.' Mr. Lemon says municipalities should look at offering tax incentives, or anything with monetary value. Another option is to downzone the allowable size of a new house. Vancouver city was looking at downzoning, but decided to simply offer infill incentives instead. It's generally felt that downzoning is the better way to go.
As long as bigger houses are allowed on such sites, there will always be the pressure to demolish, says Mr. Lemon.
"The city should seriously look at changing zoning regulations to make the new building a more difficult thing to achieve on a site where there is a landmark building, and there is the opportunity to preserve and enhance a site like this."
Some would argue that downzoning could affect resale values, but there is a demand for the old houses. They could easily hold their value without the expected lift from rebuilding. Subdivision or strata titling of a large property is one alternative, and it offers higher density. Vinson House Cottages in West Vancouver turned a single-family property into four homes, saving one of the city's oldest houses in the process. It was hailed a success. Of course, that required a voluntary heritage revitalization agreement between the homeowner and the city.
Realtor Leslie McConnell has just listed a 1958 post-and-beam house at 1191 Tall Tree Lane in North Vancouver, built by Hollingsworth builder Gil Bradner. The asking price for the 3,000-square-foot house on a 70-by-186-foot lot on a forested cul de sac is $3.188-million. It's on the market for the first time in 40 years by the second owners. It has been listed for three weeks.
Again, it's another small Modernist house on a large lot, so it's at risk. But because the houses have open living and dining areas, they don't require much updating. There's no reason to demolish, Ms. McConnell says.
"These houses are definitely a rarity," she says. "When I was doing my comparables to figure out the price, there were only two in North Vancouver that I could even compare it to. One sold around the corner from this one for $3.2-million, a really small Hollingsworth. And another one in the Edgemont area, for $3.1-million a few years ago."
People who were only interested in the land value have viewed the house, but she's had a lot of interest in the house, too.
"People love the post and beams," she says. "You just have to find the right person who wants to maintain it. It's a great house. We are not just going to sell the land.
"The owners maintained this place meticulously. It's a labour of love. It would break their hearts [if someone demolished it].
"All the neighbours are saying, 'This better not be torn down.'"
But the market for big properties is strong, and buyers want to maximize their profits. Many owners of important properties don't put their homes on the heritage register because they fear that would lower the resale value. The Southworth House was nominated for inclusion on the Heritage Register in 2008, but the owner didn't want to add it.
However, the register doesn't stop development. It only opens the door earlier in the process for the city to negotiate with the owner and offer incentives. The sooner those talks begin, the higher the chances of saving a house.
The city has few tools at its disposal, says Mr. Allan. But with the increase in protection orders, he says the city is beginning to look at its options, including tax incentives and downzoning. And council has asked staff for an inventory of heritage houses that still stand.
Adele Weder, acting editor of Canadian Architect Magazine, estimates there are about "two or three dozen" Ron Thom houses in the Lower Mainland still worth saving. Ms. Weder has a book on Mr. Thom's Copp House out in October. She said demolitions like this one make her increasingly cynical.
"We certainly don't have enough people in municipal government who have the means or inclination to conserve our architectural heritage," she says. "West Vancouver has been actively trying to rebrand itself as a city of the arts, but I don't see how it can do that if it can't even preserve the few significant houses left over from its glory years. It's rather stomach-churning, really, but no longer a shock."