None of the midcentury modern homes that real estate agent Trent Rodney has sold in the past five years have been demolished.
That’s quite an achievement considering more than half of the midcentury homes for sale in the area are demolished, says the West Vancouver realtor. Properties for sale are too often marketed as having “development potential” instead of recognizing their architectural value. Rodney discovered that there is indeed a high demand for the existing homes and buyers are willing to pay top dollar. He just needed to market to those buyers instead of those who wanted huge homes.
“We didn’t have a single demolition. Not one… And they pay a premium, honestly right, so that’s the fee formula. In the past year we have sold 15 mid-century moderns and we have a 100% success rate in salvaging them.”
When deciding on real estate, he chose a niche market that was readily available in his own backyard: these are architectural gems that emerged from a movement that began in the 1950s and flourished up and down the West Coast.
Southern BC has attracted some of the movement’s finest architecture over the decades, work particularly focused on the use of natural resources and their relationship with nature.
Heritage expert Robert Lemon said the homes represented a sustainable use of space that was ironically lost at a time when it should matter the most. Lemon has a new book out An Architect’s Address Book: The Places That Shaped a Career, by ORO Editions. The publisher also published a number of books on modern West Coast architecture.
“These houses are so vulnerable because they’re usually tiny compared to what could be built today,” he said. “But weren’t they designed to be efficient and affordable, qualities that should now be encouraged rather than every new home being an aspiring ‘luxury residence’?”
Homes are still vulnerable, he added.
“It is admirable that Trent can find buyers for these fascinating homes – the Ron Thoms, Fred Hollingsworths and the Bob Lewis homes.”
The North Shore had the best collection of mid-century modern homes in the area because it was still a thriving community back then, with nothing but ocean, mountains, and forests as a backdrop. However, hundreds of the homes have been demolished in recent years, including landmarks like Ron Thom’s Dawson House at 4170 Rose Crescent and the Forrest-Baker House at 1143 Eyremont Dr., a masterpiece designed by Thom and Dick Mann – both in West Vancouver . The 1950 Forster Residence at 1160 Ridgewood Drive in North Vancouver, designed by Fred Hollingsworth, was unlawfully demolished last year.
A developer wanting a larger home tore down Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey’s spectacular 3,500 square foot wood and glass Graham House, built in 1962. Perched on a rocky cliff, the multi-storey Graham House was a valuable work of art that has been lost forever. That loss was particularly painful, Lemon said.
Mid-century homes aren’t the only older homes that end up in landfills. Even Klee Wyck, a house where Emily Carr painted her famous paintings, was demolished. The owner had given it to the district for use as an art facility, but the district failed to maintain it over the decades and it fell into disrepair.
It didn’t help that the real estate industry typically marketed properties as “development potential.” Rodney, who was pursuing an architecture degree at the time, saw all the lavish destruction and decided to use his years of work in marketing and advertising instead. He entered the real estate industry, starting out at a luxury real estate firm and working with real estate agent Jason Choi before they decided to start their own boutique firm, West Coast Modern.
Rodney is the frontman; Choi handles the transactions. It was a unique approach that combined commerce with the preservation of art, the way Rodney and his growing list of clients view the distinctive homes. Today he has around 25,000 subscribers in his database.
And as he’s tapped into a mid-century modern fan base, he’s discovered that people are willing to pay top dollar for the collectible homes, which typically sell for around $3 million to $5 million. They’re no longer teardowns, they’re collectibles.
Skillful buyers collect the houses like other cars. He estimates that around 25% of his clients work in the technology industry. Others are musicians, athletes, filmmakers, artists, architects and designers.
“For them, it’s like a work of art that they become custodians of,” says Rodney.
“I recently looked back at the sales and realized everyone is so happy in their rooms.”
However, he and Choi are also building a brand, a business that is profitable and also saves homes. And as the District of West Vancouver has seen, it’s a lot easier to save homes when the consumer appreciates the architecture and not just the square footage.
“We are not a museum. We are here to act and take it to the next custodian to turn what is almost a museum appreciation into commerce.”
They have sold homes that are beautifully maintained to ones in dire need of maintenance. Many of the homes are modest by today’s standards, with just a few bathrooms and bedrooms. Others are iconic.
He says his biggest marketing venture was the cliff-top Starship House, Arthur Erickson’s sharp-edged, cedar-clad home in Horseshoe Bay, which was listed for $4.8 million. This listing had a global reach of millions of views after going viral on social media and being featured on TV and in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Elle Décor and Sharp. This attracted global buyers who usually go to Palm Springs to shop for their mid-century modern models. In the past, the only global buyers who bought such a home in BC wanted to demolish it, Rodney says. Buyer demographics have shifted.
“This is architecture porn,” he says. “Everyone says, ‘Have you seen the house?’ That was [the reaction] to this house.”
But his favorite houses are the undiscovered gems, those houses that don’t have a fixed name attached to them. They are simply beautiful examples of great design. Bob Lewis, for example, was a prolific builder who was not an architect but understood mid-century modern design and built beautiful homes. Rodney visits Lewis home owners and fills them in on the history of their home.
He compares Lewis to Joseph Richler, a California developer whose homes were influenced by modern architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. Like Lewis, Eichler built beautiful homes that were also affordable. Rodney recently sold one at 516 W. 22nd St. in North Vancouver for $2.3 million after being on the market for 13 days.
Unfortunately, Lewis was not appreciated, so many of his homes have undergone renovations that don’t make sense. Rodney’s job is to point homeowners in the right direction, like advising them not to put vinyl windows in them.
“I’ll tell them, ‘You’re in a Bob Lewis, so don’t put vinyl windows in it. It kills the mood. I tell them, ‘take this guy, he’ll insert the glass into the existing cavity.’ I do a lot of it. It’s a big part of my job.
“They thought their house was a demolition, and they’re like, ‘You’re showing us this whole new world.’ It’s so rewarding.”