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.
By voting unanimously last week to demolish Shakesides, the home of noted Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing, the Comox Town Council has failed to recognize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build community cohesiveness.
Hamilton Mack Laing was a naturalist, photographer, writer and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing gave his waterfront property, his home and the cash from his estate to the Town of Comox “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.” The town accepted the money and, therefore, the terms of the trust.
Laing’s own letters, now preserved in the B.C. Archives, show that prior to his death in 1982 he held discussions with Town of Comox officials, and that he was satisfied they would follow-through on the instructions in his Last Will.
But 34 years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy his last wishes and mishandled the money Laing left, raising serious ethical and legal questions. You can read about those here and here.
Those matters may ultimately be resolved in court when the town applies to change the terms of the trust, and effectively negate Laing’s last requests.
But, the ethical and legal issues aside, the Town Council should have heeded those who believe Laing’s importance and his last wishes deserve something better than yet another forgettable viewing platform.
It’s not too late to change course.
The renovation of Laing’s home into some form of a nature interpretive center, and the preservation of his legacy, is an opportunity to strengthen this community by honoring its past, and by bringing people together to rebuild and respect Laing’s legacy gift. This project would undoubtedly inspire Comox Valley people.
Community service groups, such as Rotary, look for opportunities like this to support with funding and volunteers. Many building trades have already agreed to donate their expertise and time to restoring Shakesides. Businesses would surely donate materials. Other volunteers would provide labor and raise the necessary funds.
Approached in this way, Shakesides would become a source of community pride. After all, Laing’s home is an important piece of Comox history. Without history, how do people ever acquire a sense of place, of belonging? Our First Nations people understand this better than the rest of us.
But, instead of inspiring volunteers to collaborate for the common good, the council unanimously chose to perpetuate divisiveness. It’s a discouraging lack of vision and leadership.
Faced with similar dilemmas, other communities have done far better.
A decade ago in Campbell River, for example, that City Council considered demolishing the small waterfront cottage where Sybil Andrews, one of Canada’s important artists, did some of her best work. The cottage had fallen into disrepair. It had no foundation; it sat directly on sand.
Led by the Campbell River Arts Council and the Sybil Andrews Heritage Society, citizens convinced the city to restore the cottage, which they did collaboratively.
The community project inspired the city to create a Heritage Registry (Comox does not have one), and they made the Andrews cottage its first entry.
Today, Sybil Andrews Cottage thrives as a gallery to display the works of local artists and as a site for programs of visual and performing arts. Campbell River’s museum and tourist groups promote tours of the cottage as a community attraction. You can read about it here.
Let’s urge the Comox Town Council to reconsider its options. Let’s hope they will work with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and the community at large to take on a project that strengthens our community’s identity and preserves an important part of our heritage.
For more on this issue go here and here and here.
Mack Laing working in his Baybrook Nut Farm
Laing with spring salmon, April 26, 1929
Laing with nut tree branch, undated
Laing with a 52 pound tyee salmon caught at Comox, 1955
Laing, about a year before his death, July 1981
Mack Laing enjoys the first fire at his new home, Baybrook, on Oct. 11, 1923
Wedding photo Mack and Ethel Laing, 1927
When he died in 1982, well-known Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing left his possessions, his property and house,and his money to the Town of Comox. His Last Will specified that some of the money be used to create a natural history museum in his house and to invest the other funds.
The town has not fulfilled either of those wishes, raising serious ethical and legal questions.
Why didn’t the Town of Comox follow the terms of Hamilton Mack Laing’s trust after the naturalist’s death in 1982, and turn his Shakesides home into some type of natural history museum? Why didn’t that council immediately invest the $45,000 that Laing left for the town to fund those terms?
Has the town spent money from the trust on items that aren’t authorized by the trust’s provisions? If the town had no intention to follow the terms of the trust, why did it accept Laing’s money?
We can ask these questions of every Comox Town Council and mayor since 1982, because they have all had the opportunity to fulfill the terms of the trust.
But the current Comox Town Council hopes to convince a B.C. court to change the terms of the trust to allow the demolition of Shakesides and relieve the town from restrictions on how to use Laing’s money.
Councillors might reasonably argue they are following the recommendation of an advisory committee report that concluded, on a 3-2 vote, the house should be demolished. But two members of the advisory committee say the process was flawed, and they issued a minority report.
The minority report, signed by Angela Burns and Mark Ouellette, presents a picture of a corrupted process that did not address two of its three assigned goals. In fact, they claim the committee chair refused to allow discussions related to those terms of reference. You can read the minority report here and draw your own conclusions.
Laing would be disappointed that what he intended as a wonderful gift to a community he loved has turned into a sordid affair.
But the Town Council has created an impression that they don’t care about getting to the bottom of this story. They don’t question why the money was mishandled or how it was spent. And no councillor has fully addressed the ethical issues.
A reporter has quoted Mayor Paul Ives as saying, “That was then, this is now.” It’s a foolish statement meant to deflect any moral imperative to correct the wrong perpetrated by the Town of Comox for 34 years.
If the federal government followed this logic, Ottawa would try to ignore the land claims by Canada’s First Nations people. By accepting the money from Mack Laing’s estate, the Town of Comox accepted the terms of his trust. But, to date, the town has mostly ignored them.
It’s understandable that the town wants to move forward and bring this saga to a close. But it has a responsibility to consider all the reasonable options. You can read about one idea here, or here.
Council believes a modern interpretation of Laing’s ideas can be accomplished by returning the property to its natural state, because, they say, he was a naturalist.
It’s a silly means of justifying the demolition. If the town actually returned the land to its “natural state,” they’d rip out the bridges, walkways, signs, stairs and other human additions and let the property go wild. That’s it’s true natural state.
Vancouver author Richard Mackie lived in the Shakesides house for several months following Laing’s death. A friend of Laing’s, Mackie packaged up Laing’s drawings and writings and notes. He said the house at that time was “beautifully maintained.”
The Town of Comox, however, says Laing didn’t leave enough money to convert the house into a museum in 1982 and maintains that contention today. The town has done few, if any, repairs over the years. They say the house is in such bad shape that it’s unsuitable for public use and must be torn down.
Responding to letter from Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters in 2001, Comox financial officer Steve Ternent (at the time of the letter) wrote to administrator Helen Dale, in part, that “No natural history museum involving the house has been established to date because the house is old, inadequately powered, poorly insulated and subject to flooding in the basement. It would not be suitable for the use suggested in the will;” that is, a public use.
In Ternent’s description, the house sounds horrible and inhabitable. But that didn’t stop the town from renting the house for 31 years, right up until 2013 — another 12 years after Ternent’s description.
Or, has the town exaggerated the condition of Shakesides to make its case for demolition? A visual examination by a structural engineering firm in December of 2015 found that despite issues related to 34 years of neglect, the structure “has performed adequately to date.”
The firm concluded that, “Provided the building envelope is repaired, structural repairs completed and the loads on the building are unchanged, the building structure will continue to perform adequately in the future.”
However, it appears that the Laing Trust has funded trails, stairs and walkways, none of which Laing referenced. Now the town may use Laing’s money to modify the terms of his trust. And they’re threatening critics that any money the town spends on defending its actions will just drag the fund down further.
But isn’t that in itself a misuse of the funds?
Questions about the Town of Comox’s handling of the Mack Laing Trust are not new. Citizens expressed concern many years ago, including Comox Valley Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters.
In April of 2001, she wrote to then Mayor George Kirkwood and councillors asking for financial information related to the trust and suggesting that some of the Laing funds had been used for inappropriate purposes.
Here is Master’s letter:
Hamilton Mack Laing has probably turned over in his grave more than once since his death in 1982.
Because if the famous Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer suddenly came alive today, he’d be shocked and angry at how the Town of Comox has fumbled his gift of property and cash.
When Laing died in 1982, he left the town, among other personal items, his waterfront property, his home named Shakesides, and the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.”
Thirty-four years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy the last wishes of this important literary and ornithological person. It’s shameful how the town has claimed Laing’s celebrity, but ignored his desires for a legacy.
The residue cash from Laing’s estate was $45,000, a sizable sum in 1982. His will specified that 25 percent should be used for capital improvements to his home and the remaining 75 percent should be invested to help fund the ongoing operating expenses of a natural history museum.
… an analysis of the fund by Kent Moeller, CPA, of Moeller Matthews in Campbell River, shows the trust fund should be worth $481,548 today.
But the town ignored the terms of Laing’s gift as specified in his Last Will.
The town did not spend $11,250 on capital improvements to his home. Instead, it rented the dwelling starting in 1982 , shortly after Laing died, at a curiously low rate. It’s done minimal maintenance on the house.
Nor did the town immediately invest the remaining $33,750. The town only started investing Laing’s fund in 2001, so for almost 19 years the money earned no interest.
The town has not created a natural history museum, but has profited from sales of prints of Laing’s drawings and paintings, and his collection of original Allen Brooks paintings.
This is no way to respect a noted North American naturalist.
For the last few years, members of the Comox Town Council have discussed what to do with the Shakesides house, and Laing’s original home, called Baybrook, which he sold to the Stubbs family and was later acquired by the town. The town demolished Baybrook last year, and is considering a similar fate for Shakesides.
The justification is, of course, that restoring Shakesides into a usable public facility would cost too much and, the town claims, and there’s only $76,672 in the Laing Trust Fund.
But an analysis of the fund by Kent Moeller, CPA, of Moeller Matthews in Campbell River, shows the trust fund should be worth $481,548 today. He used figures released by the town and conservatively calculated interest rates.
Moeller suggests that if the town had immediately invested all of Laing’s bequeathed cash plus the rental income, it would have nearly a half-million dollars in the trust fund.
Moellar’s analysis changes the nature of the town’s recent discussions about what to do with Shakesides and how to honor one of its legendary former residents. It’s a different argument when you’re talking about $481,548, rather than $76,672.
Shakesides could be renovated for about $150,000, according to a quote from a Comox Valley builder, and the remaining funds could continue to grow and help pay operating expenses of a natural history museum as Laing specified in his will.
There’s a solid justification for the view that the town owes the Laing Trust Fund $404,876.
The view from Shakesides
At least he got a plaque
But just as important as the fate of Shakeside’s and actuarial debate over what should be the trust fund’s present value, are the ethical considerations.
What responsibility does the Town of Comox have to follow through on the last wishes of any person who leaves a municipality cash, property or other items of significant value?
While the failure to follow through originated with the elected councillors and staff of the Town of Comox in 1982, the gift was to the town itself, not to any temporary combination of individual staff or elected representatives. That makes the town responsible, and all elected officials since 1982.
If the town had good reasons not to follow through on Laing’s last wishes, was it appropriate for them to keep the residue cash on their general ledger? Was any of the money spent improperly, for purposes that do not qualify under the terms of the trust? Moeller notes that $15,600 of unidentified capital expenses were taken from the account.
If the town decided not to respect Laing’s last wishes, should it have transferred the funds to some other community organization willing to take on the transformation of Shakesides to a natural history museum?
The Town of Comox must address these questions in its deliberations about the fate of Shakesides.
Laing was not only a prominent Comox resident, he was a generous one. He gave the Town of Comox his home, his property — now valued at over $1.6 million — and his collection of artwork, which he hoped would be used to create a natural history museum.
It’s wrong that his gift has been handled so carelessly. It’s time to atone.