The New York Times has written about the crumbling stone building in Ottawa at 24 Sussex Drive. This was supposed to be the residence of the Prime Minister. The building, a huge stone house with over 35 rooms on four floors was originally built in 1868 by a lumberman for his own use. It was expropriated by the government in the mid 20th century, and underwent a very unfortunate renovation in the 1950’s that took off its original gingerbread trim and cladding.
Unlike 10 Downing Street in London and the White House in Washington, the purpose of 24 Sussex Drive was to be only a residence. The spaces are not large enough for state dinners or formal functions, and many of the rooms as they exist are quite small. Located on a cliff overlooking the Ottawa River the location is stunning, however the house has not had good maintenance or stewardship for over 60 years.
Asking for tax payer funded renovations of the house~and 2015 estimates valued the work at 15 million dollars~is not that good a look for any political party in office. The house has a leaky roof, knob and tube electrical, is riddled with asbestos and has boxy air conditioning units plugged into the windows like a cheap hotel. There is an antiquated horrid heating system that costs over $50,000 a year to run. There was a reason that the current prime minister said no thank you, and tucked his family into a smaller residence at Rideau Hall, where the Governor-General lives.
But what do you do with an old stone house that needs shoring up and a major facelift? It is a recognized heritage structure due to its history and function, but is that enough? Or is it an important enough site and has Canada the local expertise to throw this open to a Canadian design competition?
Noted architectural writer and author Adele Weder said it best on facebook: “Okay everyone, let’s vote: total reno? or demolish and rebuild? I vote to knock down this colonial pile that was built by an American lumber baron not that long ago and has limited heritage value. Let’s have a competition for a Canadian architect to design a new purpose-built prime ministerial residence of which we can be proud.”
It is a very Canadian question~should the house be maintained at a cost similar to complete reconstruction, or should there be a new build? Should a hybrid of old and new be considered for 24 Sussex Drive? And should this building be just a residence, or should it also have functional rooms for state dinners and meeting guests? How attached are Canadians to having a residence suitable for a prime minister to live in, and should it be a custom built place with iconic art and architecture representing Canada?
Margaret Trudeau disliked the house calling it drab and grey, and the “crown jewel in the federal penitentiary system“. During her time as a Prime Minister’s wife in the 1970’s there was a large quilt on one wall of 24 Sussex, borrowed from the National Art Gallery. It was a quilt by famed artist Joyce Wieland, that read “Reason over Passion”. One frustrating day in the residence Mrs. Trudeau cut the letters out of the quilt and reordered them to read “Passion over Reason”
That perhaps best sums up the dilemma with this house. Is it to be a restored residence based upon a lumberman’s original plan, or should it be anew, a residence and place of meeting more representative of Canada?
There’s a YouTube video below of Maureen McTeer, wife of Prime Minister Joe Clark being interviewed at 24 Sussex Drive in 1980.