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Heritage on the Rocks

The demolition of Arthur Erickson’s Graham house in West Vancouver upset a great many people—but for all the wrong reasons
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The demolition of Arthur Erickson’s Graham house in West Vancouver upset a great many people—but for all the wrong reasons

In late November, a flurry of finger-wagging media commentators discussed the demolition of an Arthur Erickson house in West Vancouver. A wealthy developer named Shiraz Lalji (with, the insinuation went, no interest in local heritage or fine architecture) tore down the Graham house at 6999 Isleview, near Horseshoe Bay, in order to replace it with a "monster home."

What went unreported was that there was no treasure to tear down. Erickson's Graham house-built in 1963 for David Graham-had been steadily stripped of its original genius over decades. Erickson built a 3,500-square-foot wood-and-glass icon on what everyone had considered an impossible site. By last winter, that house was a bloated 6,000 square feet, thanks to unsympathetic, non-Erickson additions. The fireplace was built over. An elevator had been installed. The house was lost not when bulldozers arrived in the front yard; it was lost piecemeal over many years. And the culprit was not a wealthy, London-based businessman, but a community that failed to safeguard its own heritage.

The painter Gordon Smith lives (with his wife, Marion) a short drive from the Graham house in another Erickson building. (Theirs was built in 1966 and is also sited remarkably on problematic rock.) The Smith house, unlike the Graham, is a stunning example of informed preservation. All the furnishings work in harmony with Erickson's design, and the Smiths employ "a full-time man" to keep up the landscaping and exterior.

Without the stewardship of a sympathetic artist like Smith, how can we maintain private property as a public legacy? Cheryl Cooper, founder of the Arthur Erickson Conservancy, says the fate of the Graham house should serve as a wake-up call. West Vancouver and other municipalities will, she hopes, take the demolition as an impetus for appreciating the heritage we can still save. "Look at the age of Canada," says Cooper. "Modern heritage is half our heritage. Fifty years from now people are going to look back on us and wonder why we didn't fight to save it."

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