Poet Al Purdy’s House Saved from Wrecking Ball
By Mark Abley of the Montreal Gazette
MONTREAL – Canada’s battered literary community got an infusion of hope Friday. Having begun with the shocking news that the largest Canadian-owned book publisher, D&M, was seeking bankruptcy protection, the week ended with word that the home of one of the country’s finest poets, Al Purdy, has been saved from demolition. Starting in 2013, it’s expected to become the centre of a writer-in-residence program.
The house is a modest and unconventional A-frame, built by Purdy, his wife, Eurithe, and his father-in-law in the late 1950s near the shores of Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County, Ont. Experts call it a unique piece of “vernacular architecture.”
After the poet died in 2000, his widow maintained it as best she could. But now, in her late 80s and in fragile health, she needed to sell. And a likely outcome appeared to be a purchase by someone who might have demolished the building and erected a monster cottage in its place.
But a four-year campaign led by Jean Baird, a cultural activist in Vancouver, has finally borne fruit. The campaign succeeded in raising a little over $200,000 — much less than Eurithe Purdy could have raised by putting the property on the real-estate market, but enough to enable her to sell the house to the non-profit Al Purdy A-frame Association.
A longtime friend of the Purdys, Baird lives in British Columbia. So does the poet’s former publisher, Howard White. But they, rather than people in Toronto, were the driving force behind the movement.
There are, Baird said in a phone interview this week, challenges in trying to save a house from a distance of several thousand kilometres. Yet the campaign managed to gain attention and funds from across Canada.
One of the major donors was Toronto writer George Galt. “If Lawren Harris or Emily Carr had built a homemade house on a lake less than two hours from Toronto and no one had tried to save it,” he asked, “wouldn’t we all be kicking ourselves now? I believe the Purdy house is a national treasure and that generations to come will be grateful that Jean Baird and Howard White led the campaign, against some heavy odds, to see it preserved.”
Montreal poet and editor Carmine Starnino agrees. “Great to hear such a mythologized place will stay standing,” he said. “It’s a boon for the preservation of our literary and cultural history. Speaking as someone who has benefited from the nesting quality of writing retreats, I hope new myths get their start at Roblin Lake.”
Baird’s idea, from the start, has been that today’s writers should be able to stay in the house for a flexible period and use the time to create original work. She also hopes the writers in residence will form links with the local community.
As a slouching rebellious teenager, Al Purdy attended Trenton Collegiate Institute — not his favourite place in the world — and he would doubtless have enjoyed knowing that in the past year, students from the school’s technical program repaired his outhouse.
Fundraising efforts will continue, Baird emphasized, even though the house has now been saved from the threat of a wrecker’s ball. Some upgrades are required, and an endowment fund must be created to place the writer-in-residence program on a financially secure footing. A gala event planned for February at Toronto’s Koerner Hall will feature readings by well-known authors and an auction of literary treasures.
One of those treasures will be a rare first edition of Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, which is sure to raise several thousand dollars. Cohen has already donated $10,000 to the campaign. Among the other items at the auction will be two handwritten letters by the great English writer D.H. Lawrence.
Baird waxes lyrical about the involvement of young people in the campaign — it has not been waged only by people in the second half of life. Thanks to their love of Purdy’s work, both the lawyer who managed the house purchase and the architect who will oversee the upgrades got in touch with her while they were still university students. Similarly, Canadian poets of all stripes — notorious for their fractious infighting — have come together to support this project.
“What a priceless gift we can offer to future generations,” Galt wrote while the fate of the property was still unclear, “if we can save the house that Al and his wife, Eurithe, built with their own hands, the place where so much of his work evolved, an irreplaceable cultural landmark … It was this little haven that allowed him to live his unusual life, offering encouragement to so many other writers and imagining his own remarkable poems.”
Or as Baird puts it: “The fact that we’ve now got this far is a tribute to Al Purdy and his unique voice.”
For more information, go to www.alpurdy.ca