by Danny Zanbilowicz
Members of the Mack Laing Heritage Society, and their many supporters in the community believe it is essential to preserve at least one of Mack Laing’s homes on the Comox estuary as a nature interpretation centre, as was his wish. Before, there were two. Now the only one left is Shakesides. The Town of Comox, and its supporters, are eager to demolish Shakesides and replace it with a viewing platform and/or pavilion.What’s all the fuss? HistoryThis is a tale of two adjacent properties on the shoreline of the Comox estuary, just down the road from another well known site- the Filberg House. But whereas the Filberg has become a successful well- used mainstay, the homes and properties of Mack Laing are mired in controversy and neglect. Hamilton Mack Laing who lived from 1897 to 1982, was a self described naturalist, at a time in history when much of the great outdoors was an unexplored wilderness. He photographed, drew, and collected countless plants and animals. He was an avid hunter, and expert taxidermist, stuffing literally thousands of birds (over 10,000). In his early years, he studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York, and was considered an exceptional painter. For decades he was well known to the public as a writer of fiction and non fiction, with nature-oriented themes. His works are in collections in museums across the continent. He discovered a mouse which is named after him- Perognathius Laingi.(More on his life and accomplishments in Richard Mackie’s article to the right.) Although he had travelled widely throughout North America, it was Comox he fell in love with, and where he decided to settle down.In 1921 he bought the Baybrook property, covered with forest. He cleared it, and in 1923 built a sturdy home from a mail order kit. He married Ethel Hart, from Portland, in 1927. They had a nut orchard from which they earned a living, which included filberts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans. When Ethel died in 1944, it was said that a heartbroken Laing could no longer remain in the house. He sold Baybrook in 1949 to the Stubbs family, and in 1950, on the lot next door, he built Shakesides, using the same building plan as the Baybrook kit house – with his own additions – and lived there until 1982, when he died at the age of ninety-nine. This story is all about the two houses.The Stubbs family subdivided the Baybrook property, and lived in Laing`s original house on 2.6 hectares by the seashore. During two winters, Alice Monroe lived in the house while the family was on vacation. The property was sold to Greg Bay, and in 2011, Baybrook was purchased by the BC Nature Trust, and the Town of Comox for a public park.Meanwhile, next door, Laing had been living in the Shakesides house since 1949. In 1972, he bequeathed the property to the Town of Comox in trust, with the condition that he be allowed to live there tax-free for the rest of his life. When he died 1982, his will provided $45,000 to the trust to turn his house- Shakesides- into a nature museum, as described in his will:“That the funds so bequeathed will be used for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum, twenty-five percent of the cash realized to be used for capital improvements to the dwelling house, and the remaining seventy-five percent to be invested by the Town, the income earned thereupon to be applied towards the annual operating expenses of a natural history museum, it being my desire, as I have indicated to Alderman Alice Bullen, that my home remain on the said property, in my belief that the upstairs could be renovated to provide accommodation for a resident caretaker for the park, that the present living area could be developed for use as a natural history museum, and the basement adapted as a museum storage area, craft shop or meeting place.”
He also donated paintings, books, and photographs to Comox, Courtenay, and various museums.Laing’s wishes were never fulfilled- the museum never happened. Instead, the Town rented the home out for many years- in fact, until 2013.In 2013, the Town of Comox announced that it intended to demolish both of Laing`s homes- Baybrook, and Shakesides.Many in the community were appalled. There were people around who had known Mack Laing personally, such as former Comox Alderman Alice Bullen, and friend Gordon Olsen, and knew first hand of Laing’s desire to have his home turned in to a museum.In early June, a group came together and organized a committee to stop the demolition order.The Mack Laing House Conservation Committee Team was spearheaded by Project Watershed and Comox Valley Nature. It comprised environmental, engineering, architectural, heritage conservation, logistics and history professionals, as well as supporters from Comox.A member of the group, Loys Maingon says- “We found out that Baybrook was about to be demolished, and Shakesides shortly after. We made a petition to Town council, to give a stay of execution until September to save Baybrook. The Town accepted.”The group decided that of the two houses, Baybrook was the better one to save for a museum- it was larger, higher off the flood plain, and structurally more amenable to restoration and public use (both were sound). Also, it was more culturally relevant because Laing did his best work while living in that house, compared with less productive years at Shakeside. Although Laing intended for Shakesides to be the centre/museum, there is a legal precedent called “cy-pres” which allows executors of a trust to make a change when it more accurately fulfills the intent of the trust.The committee went ahead and prepared a detailed document complete with architectural and engineering reports, and a business plan. The intent was to save Baybrook and make it a useful public building without causing any burden on Comox taxpayers. They believed that capital costs for the renovation- around $125,000, could be covered by contributions from the community, and that long term maintenance costs could come in part from using the facility as the home base for a nature pre-school. Jarrett Krentzel, founder of the local Hand-in-Hand Nature Pre-school, explained that the house would be needed only as shelter in cases of extreme weather, for the safety of the children. The children would be out exploring the two nature parks for up to two hours a day, with a maximum of 18 children, and generate $7,000/year for the operating expenses. To date, there has been no need for any indoor use by the pre-school, now operating in Cumberland – but the provision has to be in place. The plan also included a possible residence in a self-contained suite on the main floor for visiting scholars. Partly to indicate their seriousness about taking responsibility for the project, the committee morphed into a Society. They received letters of strong support from Nature Trust Canada and BC Heritage, including the possibility of grants from the latter organization. Builders and contractors came on board offering to work pro bono. Everything was in place to move ahead.Loys says- “We had a fundraiser in August, and raised $12,0000 in three hours. We presented to council five days later. The money was still coming in, when the s*it hit the fan. The plan was so successful that the neighburs went ballistic.”Loys believes that what followed was a “coordinated campaign of vilification and lies.”Obviously, others see it differently. There is no doubt that the opponents of the plan organized a powerful critique.Neighbouring citizens complained about a lack of consultation. Many feared extra traffic and parking woes in an already crowded area. Others said the Baybrook building wasn’t worth saving- that it was a rundown shack without historical or architectural interest, although they were probably referring to structures added on by the Stubbs family, and not the original house, which was built from old growth timber, and was solid. Many preferred that the site become open to views of the ocean, rather than occupied by a building which obstructed views. Who needs another building on a crowded waterfront, and why should a small private group like the Society have access to the building and its views, at the expense of the rest of the community? Also, the site occasionally flooded.Opponents said that the effort to pay for ongoing maintenance would unavoidably result in “commercialization” of the property, which would go against the wishes of Laing and the town.A letter to the Society from the Town dated March 10 2015, signed by Mayor Ives, says that a staff report rejected the Society’s funding proposals as overly optimistic, meaning that the Town did not believe the proposed income sources would materialize, or were grossly exaggerated, and that the Town would be obliged to foot the bills. At the same time, the Town revealed that all along it had intended to demolish the house, and return the property to it’s “natural state”.The war of words was waged in local newspapers, and submissions to Comox council.As a result of all this, Town staff recommended demolition, and in August of 2015, Baybrook was gone.One down, one to go. Next on the agenda was getting rid of Laing’s last remaining house.An independent legal opinion by Queen’s Council Bill Pearce suggested that the BC Attorney General be contacted. On August 6, 2015 she intervened, informing the Town that if they demolished Shakesides, they could be in breach of trust. The Attorney General of BC now stands between Shakesides and the bulldozer. The Town decided to create another committee- the “Mack Laing Nature House Advisory Committee” to “evaluate the potential of converting (Shakesides) into a natural history museum.”The eight members consisted of two Town Councillors, one representative from The Mack Laing Heritage Society, one Town staff, one rep from the Comox Museum and Archives Society, one from the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society and two members from the community-at-large.Over eight meetings the committee considered four options: 1) a full museum, 2) a hybrid solution/nature house, 3) Demolition and creation of a viewing platform, and 4) moving the house to another location. Angela Burns, the Mack Laing Society representative, protested early on that important information was not being heard.On April 29, 2016 the Committee presented its decision to Comox council.. Of the five votes that were admitted, three were in favour of demolition, and two for preserving the house and creating an interpretive centre.This is where we are today- a standing demolition order for Shakesides, The Town cannot proceed without obtaining a court approval for changing the terms of Laing’s trust.Angela Burns and citizen-at-large with construction expertise Marc Ouellette, released a minority report which charges that the committee process was flawed. Excerpts from the Minority report:1. The Committee did not review, in depth, the potential of converting the Property into a natural history museum, as per Mack Laing’s Will and the terms of the Trust. 2. Discussion of any community engagement in a restoration project for the Property was disallowed. 3. The Chair disallowed the consideration of reports about the Property, including professional engineering assessments and the professional construction experience of a committee member, despite objections, when determining the viability of restoring the Property. 4. The Chair disallowed a discussion of funding sources, a list of which had been prepared and circulated upon request. .. 5. The Committee did not discuss how the Property might be converted into a nature interpretive centre or nature house, as per the modern interpretation of a “natural history museum”… in keeping with the intent of the Will… A majority vote on the three final options resulted in the Committee putting forward the third option, to demolish the Property and construct a viewing platform. lt is our opinion that the third option does not satisfy Mack Laing’s desire to provide a place that teaches the wonders of nature. …References 1. The state of the Property was reviewed by Harold Bates (P.Eng), and found to be structurally sound. … Restoration Funding- A list of about 20 organizations was circulated to the committee members regarding funding for conversion of the Property into a public museum. The Mack Laing Heritage Society, a 2016 recipient of a Heritage BC Award, offered to assist in attracting provincial and federal financial support, and engage in community fundraising. This discussion was disallowed.2. Conclusion- A reasonable compromise between a traditional museum and the destruction of the Property, namely the creation of a modest nature house/interpretive centre for public use and enjoyment, was dismissed by the majority of the Committee in favour of demolition. Opportunities were presented to the Committtee regarding making the Property a financially-viable and publicly accessible nature house and interpretive centre. Discussion on these suggestions was disallowed, despite the name of the Committee. We, the undersigned, participated in this Committee to assist in examining and discussing options for the Property, as per the Will and Terms Of Reference. Despite clear TORs, the stated goal was ignored, no deliverable plan was produced, and discussions regarding the scope and advantages of a public project were actively ignored.”
In 1973, Laing bequeathed his property to the Town, and lived on it for another nine years. It was in is will of 1982, though, that the intention to turn the house into a nature interpretive centre was articulated.Comox Mayor Paul Ives, among others, says the legal force of the will is different than terms of a trust. The will is more of a wish list, than a legal obligation. He believes that probably the Town did not fulfill Laing’s wishes at the time because they couldn’t- there was not enough money available to do so. Laing left around $11,000 to turn the house into a museum, and $34,000 more to be invested for long-term maintenance costs.Comox resident Gord Olsen knew Mack Laing personally- they were friends, and he says this is nonsense- the building required very little work to convert: “When Mack Laing died, the house was a living museum- everything was there- correspondence, the art collection, hundreds of stuffed birds, which are now in museums. How much does a gallon of paint cost? The ball was dropped then, and the ball stays dropped.” So- the money Laing left was not allocated at the time as he intended, and the house not converted into a museum. Instead, the house remained a residence, and was rented out. What happened to the money has become an extremely contentious topic.There is no question that at a minimum, for eighteen years, between 1982 and 2000, the money in trust was mishandled by the Town of Comox.Simple proof is that during this period of high interest rates, the money in the account grew from the original gift of $45,000 to- wait for it- $46,965.95.$1,965. growth over twelve years- you be the judge.>From 1982 to 1992 the account did grow, from $45,000 to $65,566, apparently from investment income.But every following year till 2000, money was withdrawn for expenses, ranging from a couple of thousand dollars to a whopping $10,667.26 in 1999, resulting in the depletion of the account to only $46,965 in 2000.Where did that money go? In a confidential Town of Comox memo from February 5, 2003, Director of Finance Don Jacquest writes that the withdrawals were “costs of maintaining the house and sometimes the costs of the park, together with a couple of capital projects (new stairs and Nature Panels).”He goes on to say that “Personally I felt that this approach (using fund interest to offset Park and Maintenance costs) was stingy, and therefore for 2001 and 2002, I have credited the fund with all the interest earned…”It seems the town of Comox gladly accepted Laing’s gift of land, and then spent money meant for the museum on improvements and capital projects in the park- clearly a misuse.And while the Town did not create a public access museum, it rented the house out, earning many thousands of dollars, which did not go to the trust, but presumably ended up in general revenue.Jacquest goes on to say- “In all honesty we could still be more generous and credit the fund with the $4,200 we receive annually for rent on the house, but haven’t.”So- no museum, and rental income spent elsewhere. It is no exaggeration to say that the Town of Comox used Shakesides as a cash cow for years. This goes well beyond “stingy”.These charges of financial misadventure are more or less shrugged off by the current inhabitants of Town Hall. That was then. But the wrongdoings are the reason why the wishes of Laing are now said to be impractical. In fact, it’s not his fault there’s too little money, as is claimed by Ives and others- it’s the Town’s, because of how they mismanaged the Trust. Shouldn’t the Town, present day, take some responsibility, and correct the wrong? That’s what the members of the Society are saying. Since 2000, the funds were invested through the Municipal Finance Authority, and have grown to $76,672.49 in December of 2015. From 2000 until the last renter in 2013, none of the rental income has ever gone to the trust.In an independent analysis by accounting firm Moeller Matthews in Campbell River, had the $45,000 been properly invested from the beginning, and rental income included, the fund would currently be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Again- there was no mention of a museum in the trust agreement of 1973. This only came up in Laing’s will, disclosed upon his death in 1982. The Town says it was never legally bound to turn the house into a museum.But supporters of Laing say- by accepting the $45,000 that Laing left the trust, which came attached with specific instructions, the Town accepted responsibility to follow through on his wishes. This is what rankles- the Town received the splendid property, now worth an estimated $1.6 million, and then his money, as well many many other gifts, and have given back so little in return, even to the point of tearing down his homes.
The Future of Shakesides
In spite of another pending demolition order, members of the Society are hopeful that the building will survive.At present the plan is for an interpetive centre.Angela Burns says- “The main purpose of the nature interpretive centre would be to inform about the plants and wildlife in the park itself. There would be nothing of great value, but the place can be easily made secure. No need for anything grandiose. The main purpose is education.”The centre could contain seasonally rotating displays about local flora and fauna, a modest library of Laing’s books and articles, some of his thousands of photographs of this area and from many expeditions for various institutions, perhaps some of Laings stuffed birds, and a bathroom.Burns continues- “The important thing is that any repair/restoration can be done over a period of years, while still having it function. The Sybil Andrews group in Campbell River has been restoring that place for 5 years. The roof is the primary concern, and we have lots of volunteers willing to get the work done. But nothing can happen unless the Town publicly supports the project.”The costs for renovation may end up surprisingly low. Burns says- “Gordon Olsen has gathered promises from a number of well known professional local tradesmen willing to contribute their expertise and time into restoring Shakesides. These are plumbers, carpenters, renovation specialists, electricians, wood finishing experts, etc. He’s still gathering more. We have been told by several engineers that they will volunteer to help repair the roof and will probably be able to get shakes donated for the purpose.” The structure is old growth wood, and will outlast homes built today. Various professional construction engineers have attested to the soundness of the building’s structure.Shakesides is built on a flood plain, and the property does flood occasionally. But the house was built to withstand that- there is a very high concrete basement, and there is no evidence that water ever got in during the many years Mack Laing lived there. Gordon Olsen says that he was in the basement many times, and it was filled with collections and artifacts- “There was never a problem.”The building is not directly accessible by vehicles. You need to walk down a path in the forest to get there. But that is the same situation for the Filberg nearby- visitors need to park on the street and walk in a bit. Then there is the cost of long term maintenance.The Town does not want to be on the hook for long-term spending on this project, and there is no question that politicians are as responsible to present and future citizens as they are to Mack Laing.But the supporters of the MLHS say that the town has been negligent in handling the funds that Laing provided for this very purpose, squandering resources.The Town responds- whatever- it doesn’t matter now because this is the present, and we have to deal with what we have, which is a paltry sum.The Town of Comox, current edition, needs to take some responsibility for what the Town of Comox earlier edition has done.This means coughing up some of the money that will be required for maintenance. The Town can do the right thing and engage with the community in a partnership. There are all kinds of ways of raising money. The Town must be willing to offer up at least some of it. It’s the right thing to do.Mayor Ives has made frequent public comments threatening to use the money left in the trust fund- $78,000 or so- in the Town’s legal defense for tearing down the houses. In other words, Ives would prove how much the Town supports Laing’s wishes by draining the trust of all the money Laing intended to save the houses. The Mayor must, at a minimum, have a wry sense of humour. The threat indicates the mindset of authorities at the Town of Comox- a disregard for Laing and his supporters verging on contempt.
Mack Laing is a woefully unexploited asset for the Town of Comox and the whole valley. Instead of embracing the opportunity, the Town turns its back on him.Laing settled here because of the beauty and richness of the natural environment. What a marketing opportunity for the local tourism industry. How’s this for an ad- big sepia photo of Laing over a glamour shot of the estuary, with the line- “Come and see for yourself why he stayed.”There is much lip service in our region to the future of “knowledge” industries, and transitioning from a resource extraction economy. Mack Laing epitomizes this new ideal.As Richard Mackie writes, the extent of Mack Laing’s contributions has barely been touched. There are piles of material, unpublished books- a possible mini industry in our area, waiting to be developed. Smart people would be eager to jump on this.Laing’s work is sitting in museums across North America. Official heritage designations of the Shakesides property would add the valley to prestigious lists. How many people would be interested in visiting the place where he spent the last years of his life?Shakesides could be a centre of art, nature study, and education which deepens the culture of the valley, and connects us to the rest of the world. What’s so bad about that?
Heritage is another word for history, which is another word for memory. Who does a community remember?Who and how we remember is personal, but also highly political. Look no farther than the struggle over naming part of the inland highway Ginger Goodwin Way. The people we memorialize represent our values, our aspirations.In Campbell River, two waterfront properties have become successful tourist and cultural institutions- Haig-Brown house, and the Sybil Andrews cottage.Comox has the Filberg centre. But it is poised to obliterate the last of two structures where Mack Laing lived and worked.We need things that are old around us, just because. For continuity, for all the unpredictable associations and textures and dreams they inspire.And emotions. There are people in Comox and elsewhere who do not want to let this die, who believe the house is an irreplaceable direct living link to the man and the good qualities he stood for. And so they passionately insist on saving the structure which he built with his own hands, and the spaces he inhabited for decades. Maybe it is not the most practical thing to do. In the end, the centre will be what it is. An imperfect, funky place which will nevertheless inspire its own brand of affection. But how glorious to finally fulfill a very old man’s wish, and create a unique new facility in our midst to honour nature, art, intellect, and lifelong study. Let’s get this behind us. Halt plans to demolish. Let the Society spearhead a community renovation, and the Town commit seed money for a fund that will finance long term maintenance. http://macklaingsociety.ca