Family hopes to save West Vancouver's historic Klee Wyck house

·6 min read

Listen to the voice of Dr. Ethlyn Trapp.

That’s the message the family of the renowned doctor and patron of the arts has for District of West Vancouver's mayor and council as they prepare to vote on a new plan for Klee Wyck Park, which would see the historic house and art studio on the site demolished.

The plan, which council will vote on at next Monday’s general meeting, is to enhance the 6.2-acre park that borders the Capilano River, at 200 Keith Rd., which has deteriorated over the years so it can be enjoyed and explored by the community.

Trapp bought the property in 1942 and was the last owner of the site, which has a history dating back to 1925, and gifted it to the district in 1960.

Klee Wyck is now one of a few remaining examples of "rustic" estate properties in West Vancouver that pre-date the Lions Gate Bridge construction.

It was Trapp's home until 1972 when she passed, and then, for many years, it was a much-loved community site utilized for the arts. The property is named in honour of Trapp's close friendship with artist Emily Carr. Klee Wyck, or "laughing one," was the nickname given to Carr by an Indigenous community she worked with in Ucluelet.

The site was “deeded to the district for purposes of a park, nursery garden, playground or other public recreation,” according to a report prepared for council.

However, Rosina Smith, who is married to Raymond Smith, a great-nephew of Trapp, said the new plan goes against Trapp's final wishes, and the family is hoping the council will consider their views.

“We feel that it’s necessary to adhere to the 1960 agreement Dr. Trapp entered into with the district that clearly stated that both the premises and the land should be ‘kept, developed, and maintained, in perpetuity,' ” said Smith, speaking on behalf of the family.

“When Aunt Et gifted it to the district, she hoped that it would be something that would be embraced and enjoyed by all community members, not looked at or considered a burden.

“We want to ensure that her legacy is honoured. That really is our only intent.”

Smith, who lives in Calgary, said she and her husband were unaware of the site’s neglect until early 2019, and the family was involved in some consultations with the district, but her "comments weren't considered."

Now, the family wants to have a complete building assessment conducted by an expert to identify whether preservation or demolition is the best course of action and to find out how much preservation would cost before the district moves ahead with its plans.

Smith said the family had even offered to pay for the assessment but was denied by the district.

The main house and studio continued to be a place for arts and culture until 2013. It holds special meaning for many artists and community members who have emotional ties to the properties. At the time, programs and groups which utilized the buildings were moved over to new facilities in the Ambleside area, including the Silk Purse and Music Box on Argyle Avenue.

The council report highlights the main house and studio were closed as public art spaces because of their condition but has received criticism from the public for allowing the site to deteriorate.

“The main house is uninhabitable in its current condition, and the district has no lifecycle cost provision for this structure,” it states.

“The studio, located to the southwest of the main house, is also in poor condition and no longer in use.”

After a short-term site-use review, district staff decided that demolishing the main house and studio was the most feasible action and is recommending that to council.

The district said the house deteriorated to its current state because, before 2015, councils of the day allocated funding to the best of their ability on a priority basis.

"In 2015, the District set up a systematic program for asset management. At the time, analysis of the assets and their condition identified a significant shortfall in what the district had been investing in asset maintenance over the years, resulting in many assets being in poor condition. The house at Klee Wyck falls into this category," said the district.

However, Smith said the family feels very strongly that without assets on the property, "there’s no means by which Klee Wyck can be self-sustaining and without that sustainability have no confidence that the district can steward the property.”

"The future of Klee Wyck is in the incapable hands of a district whose history demonstrates a lack of stewardship of their assets. Klee Wyck needs to be managed and directed by an external entity who will commit to stewarding the land and premises in perpetuity," said Smith.

The report says the district has $150,000 reserved to support the short-term plan, but an additional $170,000 will be required to complete the site enhancement.

Staff said the site will remain as a local park, and maintenance costs will continue to be included in the annual parks operation budget.

On top of demolishing the main building and studio, staff’s short-term recommendations for the park include providing basic landscaping to improve and enhance the site, removing four greenhouses, creating pathways through the gardens, consultations with the community about urban agriculture and community gardens, and a review to connect the site to the Capilano Pacific Trail.

The staff report also recommends installing interpretive signage to commemorate the story and history of Trapp.

Smith, who describes Trapp as a “remarkable woman who left an indelible stamp on West Vancouver and in Canada,” said it is easy to see what the right thing to do is to keep her legacy intact.

She said she has fond memories of visiting the site when it was beautiful and bustling with art students.

“We know what it could look like – we’ve seen it with the palms and all the beautiful flowers and the home whose walls were lined with Emily Carr’s [paintings], and that was the vision, and that was the legacy that Aunt Et left to her beloved West Vancouver,” said Smith.

Trapp was a medical researcher and patron of the arts who opened her own practice specializing in radiology and was the first woman to hold office in the Canadian Medical Association as president of the BC Medical Association in 1946. Among her many distinctions, she was awarded the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada in 1968.

“She was a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and a physician – someone we should look up to and emulate,” said Smith.

“All we need to do is listen to that voice to do what’s right for all stakeholders.”

Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News