With the popular summer festivals coming up this weekend in Comox — Filberg Festival and Nautical Days — the town likes to get all gussied up. Plants watered and weeded. Streets swept and lines repainted. Lawns mowed, and so on.
But this annual beautification apparently doesn’t extend to a building the mayor and council want to tear down. Maybe they want it to look as bad as possible?
Since June 10th, a volunteer local artist spent more than 18 hours painting realistic murals on the plywood boards covering the doors and windows of noted ornithologist Hamilton Mack Laing’s former home, called Shakesides, which he left to the Town of Comox after his death in 1982. (See gallery below)
The local artist was asked to do the mural work by Gordon Olson, a friend of Laing and an advocate for saving the noted naturalist’s house. The town plans to demolish it.
The artist painted the window panels to look like real windows, with curtains and artifacts visible in the panes. It made the house look alive, like it might have looked when Laing lived there. The colorful murals made the abandoned building more interesting and attractive.
Many of the murals have been there for over a month.
But Wednesday morning, the town parks staff was ordered to remove the murals by turning the plywood panels around or painting over them. What were momentarily works of art are once again knotty pieces of plywood.
Apparently nobody at the town had noticed the murals until Tuesday. And only then because, ironically, Olson was touring a heritage building consultant from the respected Vancouver firm AMCE Building Services Co. through the house.
They ran a noisy gas generator to power floodlights. That attracted someone’s attention who emailed the town and other nearby residents like Terry Chester that someone was in the Laing house.
But Olson had permission from the town to conduct the heritage evaluation, which includes an analysis of Laing’s importance and other factors as well as a physical examination of the building. The consultant then writes a statement of significance (SOS).
Olson hopes the SOS will recommend that Heritage B.C. bestow heritage status on Shakesides. If it does, then there’s a possibility of obtaining money for the house’s restoration from the B.C. Heritage Legacy Fund.
According to Olson, the attention created by the heritage evaluation caused a “firestorm” of phone calls and emails from town officials, and led to the awareness of the murals. Chester said he and at least three other people complained to the town.
The complaints resulted in the directive to turn the panels around. Parks staff was also told to remove the Canadian flag that Olson had flown on the building.
Now, unwanted graffiti is a nuisance and the bane of every property owner. Painting anything without the owner’s permission is vandalism. So the town had every right and, arguably, good cause to erase the artwork.
Except that, in this case, the murals made the building look better. Doing something creative and in tune with the building’s history isn’t the same as tagging, spray painting profanity or drawing obscene pictures.
Curiously, the town has ignored actual graffiti spray painted on other parts of Mack Laing Nature Park; tags on bridges and trees have been there for months. Last February, someone painted a four-letter word on the panel covering the front window. Despite being notified, the town left the graffiti in place. A neighbor eventually painted over the obscenity.
Even if the town gets its way, the building won’t come down for a long time, maybe years, as the case winds it way through the courts. So, what’s the harm of injecting some life into the home of one of the town’s most famous, and generous residents?
Town councillors probably wouldn’t have given permission to paint murals on Shakesides, but once they were up, why take them down? From the town’s view, it’s an abandoned building slated for demolition. Let it go out with some dignity.
Olson believes the town doesn’t want the building to look good, or to be improved in any way. That might cause more people to visit the house and then take an interest in saving Shakesides.
I asked Comox Mayor Paul Ives about the murals yesterday. He said they were removed because “they were done without a permit, to my understanding.” And later, “Staff have acted in response to concerns raised about non-permitted use of this property by third parties.”
But when pressed on whether he personally ordered the removal, or had any communication with staff about the issue, Ives said, “I have no further comment in this matter.”
Town CAO Richard Kanigan did not respond to my email.