Renovating 24 Sussex: a nation’s heritage should trump temporary inconvenience

24 Sussex as seen from the Ottawa River

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When future generations want to visit the site where the Prime Ministers who shaped our nation lived, where will they go? 24 Sussex is a toponym in this country, and yet it is slowly being allowed to crumble apart. The situation raises two questions: what value does 24 Sussex Drive have to Canadians, and how is it that one family alone can decide it’s not worth the effort?

In July, the National Capital Commission asked that 24 Sussex undergo 10 million dollars worth of badly needed renovations. It’s not the first time; 24 Sussex has long been on the NCC’s  watchlist. Various concerns include a leaky roof, inaccessible spaces, and asbestos in the walls. Even previous residents have complained of living conditions in Joseph Merill Currier’s 1868 home. In 2008, the Auditor General reported that the NCC — known for  sound management practice in renovating  residences under their care — was recommending that 24 Sussex needed to replace the aged heating and ventilation systems that were at the end of their life. This July, the NCC was more emphatic about the urgent need of repairs, and clearly advised Prime Minister Harper that he and his family should leave the premises in order for such renovations to take place. The Prime Minister  refused, saying that he did not wish to uproot his family for the year it would take to undergo the construction.

Now, some may argue that 24 Sussex shouldn’t even be the Prime Minister’s residence; after all, it was not built for that purpose and doesn’t always fulfill that function as well as building specifically designed to do so might. In fact, in 2009, the well-known journalist Paul Wells wrote  an emphatic “call to arms”, beseeching architects to conceive a newer/better home for the Prime Minister. Well’s objections to renovating, as opposed to building anew, were that the building is an inelegant composition of additions and modifications, and had no coherent style.

However, while designing a new residence for Canadian Prime Ministers would be a tantalizing prospect for this country’s architects, the artifact which is 24 Sussex still has an important story to tell. And since when does heritage have to exist in stylistic homogeneity?

Both Justin Trudeau and Ben Mulroney spent years growing up in the house and paint rather more kindly pictures of the home, including spaces they played in, the favorite “Freedom” room that Margaret Trudeau renovated in the 1970’s, and the legend of the 1957 Mickey Mantle card that Ben lost somewhere in the labyrinth of rooms. Justin remarked that his father always reminded them that living in the house was a privilege that was transitory; the house belonged to the government, not the family. And while the big rambling house with dusty old rooms and beautiful views of the Ottawa river was certainly bigger and better-appointed than its neighbors, it was not opulent. How suitably Canadian.

With Prime Minister refusing a temporary relocation, the house will not undergo badly needed repairs for another five years. But while we can sympathize with Mr. Harper’s reluctance to inconvenience his family, it is not an adequate excuse. The building carries with it a value to the Canadian people, as a symbol and as a record of Canadian history. As the Auditor General put it, “the official residences are more than housing provided to the country’s senior government leaders. They are part of Canada’s heritage and need to be preserved”.

Andrea Pukteris completed her professional architecture degree at McGill in 2005, she is now completing a second masters in conservation at the Université de Montréal with a concentration on heritage landscapes

Photo by 416Style

2 comments

  1. I had thought the excuse that it was inconvenient to move for the renovation was only a pretext to conceal the fact that it looks bad politically to spend millions of dollars renovating 24 Sussex. I think Jean Chretien acknowledged this in his last memoirs. While we could all agree that it is less expensive to move out and do a proper renovation than to continually do piecemeal repair, unfourtunately I think the average citizen would find it objectional to spend taxpayer’s money repairing the Prime Minister’s house. Untill something serious happens like the collapse of a wall, I don’t think we can count on a renovation any time soon.

  2. I imagine part of the political pressure against renovation comes from the fact that 24 Sussex really is a “residence” and nothing more, in the eyes of many people. Andrea writes about the heritage of 24 Sussex: for the vast majority of Canadians, that heritage is inaccessible behind the iron fence (and barely visible behind the landscaping!).

    In Commonwealth countries, the PM’s residence is a much less glamourous or extravagant affair than the Monarch’s or GG’s residence, reflecting the constitutional order of where sovereignty comes from in our system. Maybe in such a system, a certain degree of dilapidation is unavoidable. Tony Blair and David Cameron, for example, don’t live in 10 Downing but next door, because it’s a larger apartment at No. 11.

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