It could have been a hub for West Vancouver artists to gather, create art and foster community—and honour the memory of Ethlyn Trapp while doing so. That is perhaps what Trapp had imagined the moment she decided to gift her house on Keith Road to the District of West Vancouver.
But she may have reconsidered if she could have judged the cold apathy with which bureaucrats and politicians can treat even a soul-stirring project. Her dream of having her house for arts would be soon razed to dust. District of West Vancouver staff will soon report to the council on the cost to demolish the Klee Wyck house, the historic property that was gifted to West Vancouver but is now so decayed it’s not fit to be used. The community will also soon find out how much it will cost to remove the greenhouses on the property and what the staff can do to enhance it so it can be used as a park.
Dr. Trapp deeded the property to West Vancouver in 1960 and named it ‘Klee Wyck’ in honour of her good friend and world-renowned artist Emily Carr who wrote her autobiography with that title.
“Although the life-cycle costs associated with the buildings on this site are currently unknown, there is a liability arising from continuing to allow derelict buildings to stand without attention. However, given the historic and heritage significance of the Klee Wyck property, further consultation would be desirable to explore how the asset may fit into the district’s long-term strategy for recreation, arts, culture, heritage and land use,” the district’s asset management report says.
Klee Wyck is a rustic estate property situated on the banks of the Capilano river. It has a main house, a gatehouse, a greenhouse and an artist’s studio. The site is landscaped with old growth trees and introduced plant species, some dating from the 1920s through the 1940s.
Dr. Trapp lived here from 1942 until her death in 1972. She was a physician, a humanitarian, and also served as president of the BC Medical Association and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1968. Dr. Trapp deeded the property to West Vancouver in 1960 and named it ‘Klee Wyck’ in honour of her good friend and world-renowned artist Emily Carr who wrote her autobiography with that title. From 1980 to 2012, the home was being used to host arts program but the artist studio occupancy agreement was terminated in 2012. After that, it was used for storage. The green houses served as the district’s nursery until 2012, but four of the six are in poor condition. While the nursery is no longer in use, two standalone greenhouses are used for storage and hardening of plants by the parks department. If these are removed, it would need to find an alternative plant storage for overwintering plants and spring gardening.
In 2015, the district and EcoUrbia signed an agreement to manage the greenhouse and use a part of the property as an urban farm. But EcoUrbia has recently told the district it would terminate the licence as it has been unable to raise funds for the project. Former council candidate Joanna Baxter knew the Klee Wyck property well as she taught arts and performance there until 2012. She says to tear down the house and turn into yet another park would be a waste of prime land. There are more than 70 parks in West Vancouver, and Klee Wyck is one of the few parcels left that could be developed without impeding views from existing building since there is nothing directly north of it, she says.
“Klee Wyck has so many elements built into it that could really solve many of our community’s needs. Take the history of the place for one: Emily Carr was a frequent visitor and did much of her painting and writing there. I see this piece of history as something to celebrate and share. Emily Carr is one of Canada’s great treasures, known worldwide, and certainly one of the most famous British Columbians. At a time when the District struggles so much to maintain even our few wobbly arts buildings, and all proposals for CAAD have failed to hit the mark, can we not look at this District-owned land, which was deeded precisely for the use of arts and culture, as a very feasible site? It’s flat, south-facing, and most importantly, utterly unencumbered by neighbours,” Baxter says.
There are many things that are remarkable about this two-acre piece of land, Baxter says. “It’s sunny, tucked-away privacy, the tall yellow rhododendron forest to an interesting wooden sculpture in the middle of the lawn. It’s really hidden away, the kind of place you play hide and seek in for hours. We would bring the children outside during every class, out into the fresh textures of nature, to stretch and unleash their growing imaginations. There was magic in that place,” she says.
Theatre artist Amanah Triggs was one of those who lived the magic along with Jennifer Riach as both taught young students the art and craft of theatre for Dramaworks, a company that provides professional acting, theatre and drama classes for teens and children in West Vancouver. She rues the many opportunities that consecutive councils and staff at West Vancouver squandered away to renovate and give a new lease of life to the Klee Wyck house. “The historical value is huge, and it’s been degraded. If they had put money, it would have been a beautiful venue and artists and families would have been happy and we would have all contributed to it,” she says.
Triggs says this isn’t the first time district is talking about Klee Wyck house. There have been many plans in the past but those ideas often got lost into thin air as staff moved on to other projects and jobs. She said the arts and culture community did want to continue to use the Klee Wyck house but they were eventually moved to the Lawson Creek studios, which now also faces demolition. “There have been district plans to refresh and revamp the house and develop this into an arts facility, but they were never treated seriously and the place finally fell into disrepair. This could have been the perfect space for arts centre but it’s a shame it was left to disrepair,” she says.
If the district dismantles the building and doesn’t make any effort to create an arts centre at the location, it would be an insult to the memory of not just Emily Carr and Dr. Trapp, but also artists like Jennifer Riach who was a champion of theatre at Klee Wyck house, she says. “Everything has been done in a very dishonourable way, and I think there is a lot of outrage and a lot of artists feel fed up of false promises because there have been a lot of visions and plans and then they are all forgotten.”
Artist Ingunn Kemble says there’s a lot that Klee Wyck house could have been if West Vancouver district had invested in it but it was left to deteriorate. “It was simply allowed to rot away and not maintained by the wealthiest district in the Lower Mainland. In fact, they could have been making money by having classes and even using it for event rentals, weddings, funerals but they decided on inaction and let the building simply deteriorate,” she says. Kemble wistfully remembers a time when there was a cultural symposium held in Klee Wyck and 71 artists from all over the world had attended the event. If West Vancouver had made an effort, there could have been many such opportunities. “They could have really created a fantastic art centre but West Vancouver councils have a history of not making anything,” she says.
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(This story was carried in the print edition dated October 15.)