Battle Royal



For days, Arthur Erickson had been growing weaker. Finally, on a Wednesday afternoon last May, he managed one last, rasping breath. Three people were beside him in the Finnish care facility he’d come to call home. One was Lois Milsom, Erickson’s elegantly beautiful friend of 50 years. She’d met him when he was just beginning to develop his reputation as an architect and a renegade, a gorgeous young Frank Lloyd Wright for the West Coast. His niece, Emily Erickson McCullum, was there, too, as was her husband, David.

Missing from the scene was Cheryl Cooper. For almost a decade, Cooper had decided which invitations Erickson would accept, flown with him to deliver speeches and receive awards, and been at his side with such physicality that people not knowing he was gay might have mistaken her for a wife or daughter. In the events following his death three weeks short of his 85th birthday, her absence was easily overlooked. As the days passed, a wave of warm appraisals washed across the country for this distinctive Canadian figure, the man revered by architects around the world for the way his buildings emerge out of the landscape. Many laid claim to him in media stories and memorials—
Erickson had had a life both solitary and crowded with all who sustained him.

When it came time to organize these public remembrances, Cooper was back. Erickson’s family scheduled a service, and she threw herself into helping plan the perfect event. Afterward, Erickson’s family—his brother, Don, as well as Don’s kids, Emily, Chris, and Geoff—all signed a card expressing their appreciation. “Hello Cheryl,” one of them wrote. “We would like to thank you for your help and co-operation during the planning of Arthur’s Memorial Service and Reception and moreover, for your ongoing dedication to the preservation of his legacy.”

Their next correspondence would not be so cordial. In January 2010, the family launched a spectacularly ugly lawsuit: “Cheryl Cooper approached Mr. Erickson at a time when he was aged, ill, and vulnerable, and pursued a relationship with him for her own personal and monetary gain,” the nine-page statement charged in one of its most scathing sections. “The dominant purpose of Cheryl Cooper’s relationship with Mr. Erickson was to use his name, reputation, and body of work for her own personal and monetary gain. At a time when she knew or ought to have known Mr. Erickson’s mental abilities were impaired or incapacitated, Cheryl Cooper took Personal Items from Mr. Erickson, when he was incapable of providing her with consent to do so…. Since the incorporation of the AEC , and despite repeated demands by the Executor, Cheryl Cooper has acted in an on-going highhanded and oppressive manner in continuing to hold events based on Arthur Erickson, and has further refused to return some or all of the Personal Items. And the actions of Cheryl Cooper are reprehensible and deserving of rebuke by this Honourable Court.”

A simple tale of manipulation—except for all the confounding factors, such as allegations of “personal gain.” Even Erickson seemed barely able to make a living from Arthur Erickson. He went bankrupt in 1992 after years of lavish living on several continents with his partner, Francisco Kripacz. In his last years, friends and colleagues had to chip in to pay for his personal aide and the care home.

Then there’s the Arthur Erickson Conservancy, referred to several times in the suit as a kind of accessory to the crime. But its board members—industrialist Hugo Eppich, prominent architects James Cheng and Erickson’s business partner Nick Milkovich, and well-known heritage consultant Don Luxton—were hardly going to get richer either. Or more famous.

As for his illness, Erickson was sending letters long before he started showing signs of memory problems or dementia, saying that he supported the idea of a conservancy and that he was appointing Cooper as his liaison. The “Personal Items” she took? Luxton says all of those boxes of materials were turned over to the family two months before the lawsuit was launched. (The family declined to be interviewed for this story.)

WHAT THE LAWSUIT does make clear is that Erickson left behind personal turmoil along with a collection of beautiful buildings—from the private houses he built early in his career in West Vancouver to the still-unique Robson Square courthouse complex to the starkly grand Museum of Anthropology at UBC. “His legacy is all around us, influencing us silently and pervasively,” says long-time friend Larry Beasley, the former head of planning for Vancouver. “But throughout his life, when it came to all those issues of logistics and financials, he just didn’t care. He would set these dramas up. Sometimes I think he wanted to set them up.”

There were a lot of people around Erickson to organize dramas with. Thanks to his fame, his talent, and his need for supporters, there were many who played a special role—or wanted to. Some were architects he had mentored, people like Cheng and Bing Thom. Some were long-term colleagues, like Milkovich and Simon Scott, who photographed every building Erickson had been involved in for 44 years. Some were the pals he liked to dance and eat good food and travel with, like Milsom. Some were the angels who helped rescue him when his business empire collapsed in 1992, after he had racked up over $10 million in debt and was forced to sell his house; developer Peter Wall, for one, has carried the $475,000 mortgage on Erickson’s house and garden all these years. Some were family—the English-professor brother, nephew Chris (who also became an architect), and niece Emily (who runs a computer-support business on Bowen Island)—whom he turned to as he grew older and was no longer making the rounds of a glamorous social circuit. Others helped ensure he kept getting work locally in his later years, such as condo marketer Bob Rennie, who had earlier helped engineer the house-salvage plan. And in spite of his uncompromising reputation, Erickson always needed, at the core, a strong person telling him what to do. For years, that was Kripacz, who ultimately left him but remained his business associate and a force in Erickson’s life until his death in 2000. “Francisco just led Arthur around like he had a ring in his nose,” Scott remembers. “Someone said to me later, ‘Cheryl has become the female Francisco.’ ”

Cooper emerged in the late ’90s. To most around Erickson, she was a mystery. Cooper declined to be interviewed because of the lawsuit but did provide a biography that details her literature studies in Vancouver, Calgary, and London. “In the early 1990s, I became interested in gardens,” Cooper writes. “This interest led me to become a member of the UBC Botanical Garden, volunteer and delegate at the VanDusen Botanical Garden, Director and Librarian of the Vancouver Rose Society…and delegate to the Garden Conservancy of New York.” In 1998, she says, she was invited by the Arthur Erickson House and Garden Foundation to help revitalize the organization and garden.

The foundation was set up in 1992, after the bankruptcy and house rescue, to preserve the cottage and garden Erickson had created on West 14th. Cooper quickly became indispensable, keeping track of his social schedule, driving him to events, organizing his books, and listening to whatever he wanted to talk about for hours. All of Erickson’s friends say he loved admirers. Cooper fulfilled that role. But his social set (where Cooper was an outsider) felt alienated, especially by her control over his activities and her constant presence in his reflected limelight.

“There were occasions when I would contact Arthur and say, ‘We’re having a dinner party. Come along’ and he’d sound delighted,” remembers Scott. “Then, within 24 hours, I’d receive a letter from Cheryl: ‘Mr. Erickson will not be attending.’ ” Beasley found that the Christmas Eve dinner he’d always had with Erickson now had to pass Cooper’s scrutiny. 

The alienation increased when Cooper got into a dispute with the board over her role, salary, and status. She left the foundation, a turn of events that prompted Erickson to call his friends to ask why they were treating her so badly. In September 2003, the two went to California to a conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a group dedicated to education about Wright and advocacy for preserving his buildings.

Erickson’s own conservancy established, there were now two groups fighting for his presence at fundraising events and for money from donors. Scott organized a black-tie fundraiser in December 2006 for the house-and-garden foundation at Hugo Eppich’s palatial Erickson-designed house in West Vancouver. Erickson promised to attend but then didn’t. Milsom, who did go, said Cooper was calling people telling them not to attend. Erickson phoned her personally to discourage her from attending.

But it wasn’t until December 29, more than three years after Erickson had expressed his formal support for a conservancy and designated Cooper as a kind of agent, that Cooper formally registered the organization. It took so long, says Luxton, “because there was so much kerfuffle about the intellectual property issue. Nobody had money and lawyers don’t work for free.”

That issue of intellectual property, as it turned out, would be the sticking point for many over the next few years. The conservancy’s statement that it was “the sole arist-authorized agency for the work of Arthur Erickson, in perpetuity” didn’t sit well with many, even some on its board. And Cooper’s promotion of a $75-a-seat lecture about Erickson’s work in 2009 “drove the family crazy,” said one source close to both—adding to their suspicions that she was launching a campaign to capitalize on Erickson’s name. All of which was fraught enough. And then there was the issue of Erickson’s mental capacity and what he actually had the power to decide in his later years.

MOST PEOPLE didn’t know about Erickson’s deterioration until his death. But his mental decline had become apparent to insiders much earlier. Milkovich, who worked with him almost every day, noticed in late 2005 that he was having trouble at public events. At work, “Arthur wouldn’t say much at all and you’d have to do a lot of the work.” Cheng saw the difference in May 2006, when the architect was honoured at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Writer Nicholas Olsberg had come up from New York to interview him in front of an audience. “Arthur didn’t really say anything,” Cheng remembers, forcing Olsberg to ask questions and then answer them himself. In the years that followed, Erickson fluctuated, in the way that people with dementia often do. “He was in and out,” says Cheng. “You could tell sometimes he was not quite there. But when you talked about architecture, he lit up and got into it.”

On November 22, 2006, Erickson’s financial affairs were taken over by B.C.’s public trustee after a certificate of incapability from the province. (Friends are not sure who initiated the process—the family, Erickson’s doctor, or someone else.) Not even Erickson’s business partner knew it had happened until he got a visit from the trustee, asking that any of Erickson’s payments for work go to him. Erickson himself was vague about what was going on, only telling friends that “they” wouldn’t let him have any money. Resentments and irritation were festering, as the people around him fretted about how his cottage had became shabbier and the garden was running wild. Money was a constant problem. Various friends and colleagues are said to have contributed to Erickson’s care at the cottage. When it became clear he needed to be put into an institution, his family came to Milsom for help. She offered to sell a Gordon Smith painting Erickson had given her years earlier, a bold, red-splashed canvas that today sits over her living room couch. Erickson was adamant that she should not sell anything he had given her. Somehow, though, Milsom has “come to an agreement” with the family that they will get the painting, along with three others Erickson gave her, when she herself kicks the bucket, as she puts it.

Two weeks before Erickson’s death, the tussling began in earnest. On May 5, 2009, the house-and-garden foundation started a lawsuit claiming that Cooper had failed to return slides, photographs, and videos of Erickson’s. But the real clanger came with the will, which Erickson had made in 2000. In it, he designated his brother Don his executor, leaving him in control of everything. He specified that Don and his children could choose what they liked and split his estate. He requested that they consider donating his ceramics and pottery to the Museum of Anthropology and his photos, documents, and drawings to the Canadian Centre for Architecture. He also asked the family to lend personal items to the house-and-garden foundation. He never mentioned Cooper or the conservancy.

“When Arthur was alive, things were rolling along,” says Luxton now. “When he passed, it became clear things were actually very fragmented and the paperwork wasn’t done. In retrospect, we should have…had things sorted out with the family.” But they weren’t, so the conservancy is abandoning all claim to Erickson’s intellectual property. Luxton says it’s a shame, since the conservancy was the group able to preserve Erickson’s legacy. Not for gain, he says. “The stakes are so low. What money do you make from academic lectures? If someone thinks there’s a pot of gold… Arthur didn’t have any money.” (It’s not clear all members of the family realize this. In January, Geoff Erickson, who has been living at the house and caretaking it since his uncle’s death, emailed a group of Arthur’s friends suggesting the foundation buy one of the million-plus-dollar properties next door and build another building for a caretaker. That caused more than a little bitter laughter among those who have watched the house and garden deteriorate for lack of funds.)

In the end, the squabble between Cooper and the family has sent Erickson’s most dedicated supporters running. Cheng and Milkovich resigned from the board after the lawsuit and say they just want to stay out of it. Architect Bing Thom, who was a kind of adviser to the board, feels the same. “There’s too much emotion right now,” he says. “But Arthur will have a lasting legacy.”

ANY LEGACY WILL likely be thanks to someone not part of the public drama. Nick Milkovich is unlike his business partner. He didn’t accompany Erickson to events or give lectures about his work. He avoids publicity. “In 40 years, I don’t think we ever went for dinner,” says Milkovich. The two met in 1962 when Erickson was his second-year design studio professor. Eventually, after Erickson’s practice imploded, they went into business together. Milkovich signed all the contracts. “The clients wanted to know they could sue someone.”

Theirs was the perfect symbiotic relationship. Erickson could see the forms and how they should be arranged. Milkovich translated the line on paper, the wave of the hand. He enjoyed meshing Erickson’s abstractions with reality. “He’d throw something up and I’d think, ‘I bet I can build that.’ ”

Some have questioned how much of Erickson is present in his last buildings. Cheng doesn’t doubt he put in as much as ever. “I can still see his hand in them. He was never into details. He can see things in three seconds that we couldn’t see in three months.” It was Milkovich who allowed that to happen, interpreting Erickson’s cues and catching his still brilliant ability to understand how masses could be shaped. When Erickson was brought in by Bob Rennie to redesign the Ritz-Carlton tower, he uttered two words: “Let’s twist.” Milkovich did the rest.

Erickson’s office, a modest space at Milkovich’s firm, is still lined with books, the walls filled with framed certificates. The Centre for Canadian Architecture people have assessed it. One day, these—and all the other materials now in dispute between the family and Cooper—will likely be boxed up and tucked away until the time when Arthur Erickson’s legacy can be properly and amicably unpacked. VM