Opinion-Policy Nexus

Here is a project for 2020.

Do something about 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister. Either fix it or tear it down.

The 34-room mansion, built between 1866 and 1868, is a disaster, deemed by inspectors to be in “critical” condition. Although it may not be in peril of falling down tomorrow, it is deemed no longer fit for habitation.

That’s why when he become PM in 2015, Justin Trudeau declined to move his family into the dwelling that had been his childhood home. They have been living for four years across the street in Rideau Cottage, formerly the residence of the secretary to the governor general, on the grounds of Rideau Hall.

According to the National Capital Commission, which oversees official residences, 24 Sussex urgently requires tens of millions of dollars in repairs and rehabilitation. How much is not clear, but it would be the lion’s share of the $83 million that the NCC reckons it needs to upgrade the six properties in its portfolio (including the residences of the governor general, leader of the opposition, speaker of the Commons, and the Harrington Lake summer residence of the prime minister).

If 24 Sussex is in the worst shape of the lot, it’s because it has been 60 years since any serious money was spent on the home. From Louis Saint Laurent to Stephen Harper, prime ministers were leery of being seen to be authorizing the expenditure of public funds on their creature comforts. So they delayed, dithered and ultimately ignored the decay surrounding them.

They stuffed towels into cracks in the window frames. They put out pots to catch leaks from the roof – whisking the pots out sight when foreign dignitaries came to visit. They put up with plumbing that broke down, sweltered in the summer when the old window air conditioners failed, and lived with the knowledge of the fire hazard posed by the building’s antiquated wiring and electrical system.

They entertained as best they could in the building with no accessible entrances or washrooms, a kitchen that was too small for large occasions and a dining room that was both too large for a family and too small for state dinners.

Oh, yes, and two other things. There are rodents and asbestos in 24 Sussex.

None of this is meant to paint life there is one of unmitigated misery or discomfort. The residence is what it is: a decaying pile of little architectural significance. Designed originally as a Gothic Revival villa, it morphed over the years under the hands of various architects into a Georgian-style home.

Nor can it claim any grand heritage interest. It was built by a lumber baron, owned for years by a senator and eventually expropriated by the government after the Second World War as a residence for prime ministers, beginning with Saint Laurent, who agreed, somewhat unwillingly, to move in.

It has little of the historical stature of neighbouring Earnscliffe, home to Sir John A. Macdonald and now the official residence of Britain’s high commissioner to Canada.

But what to do with 24 Sussex? There is pressure from preservationists to rehabilitate or restore, which would essentially require rebuilding the structure to modern standards. But at what cost? Estimates range wildly – from the tens of millions on up.

Better to start over, to demolish the old building and build one better to suited to today’s requirements. Unlike the White House, 24 Sussex does not double as the leader’s offices. But it does host visiting heads of government, VIP meetings and official receptions, as well as serve as the lodgings for prime ministerial families and household staff.

There have been various suggestions for a national competition to choose a team of Canadian architects to design a new 24 Sussex that would embody the latest green technology, showcase Canadian design, and be a new landmark in the capital – a landmark that might attract international attention, but, more important, would make Canadians proud.

But, again, at what cost? There’s the rub. A very tough sell at the best of times, it’s virtually impossible with a minority government.


Monday, December 23, 2019 - 10:11