This Old House: The sagging of 24 Sussex

Paul Wells on troubled houses — metaphorical and otherwise


Blair Gable / Reuters; Louis McPherson and Studio Hetmes / The Noun Project

The Ottawa Citizen has obtained memos chronicling the advancing decrepitude of 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s residence. Elizabeth Payne’s story and Scott Reid’s reminiscence from his drafty visits a decade ago tell the tale.

I once had a good slow-week column idea, and I launched an architectural competition to design a new official residence for prime ministers on the site of the current manse. Unfortunately the competition never landed. At around the time I would have gathered the (actually quite interesting) handful of entries and prettied them up for presentation to readers, Michael Ignatieff told Stephen Harper his “time was up” and we all went on high alert for a federal election. Then Ignatieff backed down and the moment was lost. I really am sorry to architects and dreamers who submitted ideas.

As a rule the proposals I received were grander variations of the boxy modernist infills that are popping up like glass-and-brushed-steel mushrooms in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood, just outside Rockcliffe Park. Better places to be in than to look at from outside. (This place, 20 minutes’ walk from 24 Sussex, looks dynamite, is on the market for just over $1 million, and like too many other similar properties in the area it has not sold in many months. Imagine a place with 10 times its budget. Pretty sure a PM could live there.)

Other designs were more… grandiose. The temptation to build in maudlin symbolism (ten dining rooms, one for every province! Plus three closets for the territories…) is hard to resist. Everyone’s got a little Daniel Libeskind in him, it seems. The results sometimes resembled the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, designed by Helmut Kohl, a large fellow, and perhaps as a result a sprawling behemoth 10 times larger than the White House. Berliners call it die Bundeswaschmaschine, the Federal Washing Machine, for its big circular architectural features. To be fair it is only accessorily a residence. It’s mostly offices. The German federal cabinet meets there. Angela Merkel has never resided in the onsite apartment. She keeps her old place.

That column where I proposed bulldozing 24 Sussex raised the hackles of “heritage” preservationists. That reaction got my own back up, and I wonder whether people who think of 24 Sussex as a national treasure have done any reading into its history. It’s had bits glued on more or less at random for nearly a century, and it wasn’t a particularly distinguished house from the start. It scans as the official residence of Rube Goldberg. Still, I concede a tactical error. I should have proposed that the existing residence be kept and preserved — a national monument! Part of Canada’s living history! Come on in and look! But look out for that falling ceiling plaster, ma’am — and a new residence built a kilometre or two further east.

One of the many people who’ve lived in the house wrote to me to say 24 isn’t so bad, then listed its flaws. If anyone ever did make a new place, my correspondent wrote, they should remember that it’s still a home for a family. It would need, for instance, to be a place where children could play outside without tourists staring at them. Ottawa can be a place where people forget people are people sometimes.

While I was gathering nuts and berries for my latest book, a few people explained why Stephen Harper is particularly averse to vacating 24 Sussex while work crews put up the scaffolding. Recall that for the longest time, Harper’s election seemed an accident of electoral math that would soon be corrected. This impression was particularly popular among Harper’s opponents — still is. He was not unaware of this. When the good folks at the National Capital Commission delivered the briefing books on renovation plans, he would take one look (Step 1: The PM and family decamp to the UK High Commissioner’s residence or Stornaway or some other temporary digs), clouds would darken his countenance, and the plan would die right there. That’s just what they want: us out of here, he’d say. This town still doesn’t think we belong here. I don’t care if the goddamned roof caves in, we’re not moving. 

One day it may come to that. A lot of metaphorical roofs cave in when governments don’t take care of maintenance. Real ones too sometimes. Maybe one day frugality, stubbornness and gravity will team up to give one of the residence’s occupants a skylight the architects never planned. It’s not obvious that’ll put an end to the entropy. Visitors can bring umbrellas and galoshes, is all. We’re a hearty folk.



This Old House: The sagging of 24 Sussex

  1. The rennovations will require a balanced consideration of design, architecture, heritage, innovation, culture, private and public needs, etc.

    The project should therefore be undertaken by a PM with a basic understanding of, and appreciation for, these concepts.

    Harper and his wife are clearly not at all qualified for such an undertaking. Let’s be glad he’s staying put.

    • You cannot convince me you are not a plant working for his re-election.

      • Ha. Well, the issue is really beyond politics. None of the big Canadian cities have great records in terms of architectural preservation. But it’s bigger than that. Expressing opinions about investing in culture is pretty much absent from the national stage, and that applies across all parties. It’s a missing social value that almost unique to this country. How about a column on that, Paul?

      • Well, since politics was injected into this thread by the author himself, I wonder if Harper could have a few words with a potential contractor, get his own personal residence renovated by the contractor, but charge the contractor a “speaking fee” so that Harper’s house is done free of charge. Sounds bad doesn’t it? Nothing like…say… if Harper spoke to a bunch of school kids about things important to kids, then charged the school $10,000. Now that would be despicable. Like a dad/lawyer being asked to talk to his child’s class about what it’s like to be a lawyer, then the dad charging the school his $400/hr lawyer rate (or refusing to speak unless he got his fees). Most would think that dad a scoundrel. It’s a good thing there is no one with such a low moral compass currently part of our political debate.

        • Welcome back, Biff. You’ll fit right in.

          • I’m not sure of the reason of the above remark, but perhaps I should save such comments for the threads that seek to scrutinize the young man who seeks to lead this great land. Though, dear me, while I see reams attacking Harper, there’s nary a one touching the issues I’ve raised (nor any other issue seriously scrutinizing Trudeau for that matter).
            I’m sure I just need to learn the proper way around here. Clearly watching hundreds of people donate their valuable time to important charities while the independently wealthy Trudeau demands thousands of precious dollars from those same charities for an hour or so to “speak” to them is some core “progressive” principle I just fail to grasp. No doubt Trudeau could use an expensive wax job for his downhill skis far more than say….sick children could use those funds for chemotherapy or some such other apparent “non-progressive” expenditure.

          • I think your gender switch didn’t entirely take there FV.

          • Query what the young mother of two who works four hours at a charitable organization manning the phone banks to solicit donations thinks of the young Justin, who inherited his family fortune, waltzing in, and rather than donating his time like her, demanding the sum total of the donations gathered by the young mother and many other hard working volunteers, for the privilege of hearing him speak?

          • Odd how the Conbot grasp of basic economics flies out the window when convenient. It’s perfectly obvious to me that young women would be able to pack em in at a fundraiser the way say someone with an iconic name like Trudeau might be able to. And it’s equally obvious theses charities were forced to take him.

          • Help we with this math. It is hard. If he, like the young woman in my example, does the decent and honourable thing and chooses to donate his time to speak at the charity, he could “pack them in” (potentially, though it may attract politico types rather than donors to the charity). But if he charges them $10,000 dollars to do the very same thing, the charity is out $10,000 that they would othwerwise have, for say…I dunno, charitable purposes, no?
            That’s the whole point of a charity. You GIVE to it, rather than TAKE from it. Gee, maybe I’m just not understanding this whole “progressive way of thinking”. Perhaps that $10,000 was better served on one of Trudeau’s lavish cocktail parties than say….educating a poor mind starving for knowledge (yes he charged $10,000 to a middle school – about the cost of a grant for a year or two of education for a needy student).
            Most people I know who donate time or money to charity weren’t born into near unlimited wealth they way Justin was. Again, perhaps I’m missing something about this progressive world Justin wants to lead us to.

          • KCM, I need more help with math, it is hard for a “con bot”. Further to the above, unlike many who donate to charity, MP’s as part of their public function get paid to speak at such events. So unlike the young woman volunteer in my example, even if Trudeau didn’t take a dime in speaking fees, he was still getting a salary from we the people. But opposite to donating his time, he not only reaped a salary from the public, he took badly needed funds from the charity. Funds which he far from “needed”. Tell me KCM, is it “progressive” for Trudeau not have to dip into his personal fortune to pay for a ….say…$10,000 European ski trip at the expense of a potentially life altering education for a poor child? I have so much to learn KCM. Please teach me about the world you and Trudeau wish to take us to.

          • Odd how none of the charities asked for their money back eh! Almost as if they knew someone was likely to make a political issue of it. Even odder how little choice they had in the matter. Oddest of all how conservatives used to value personal responsibility, even in matters of charitable giving.
            So your theory is he’s obligated to do if for free. Does he have a choice when the charity specifically says we want that guy, cuz like obviously we can pack em in?
            So, no your grasp of basic economics is tenuous and intentionally so I might add Biff.
            Edit: You know old Biffer it ain’t classy to vote yourself up before anyone else has an opportunity to do so.

          • He wasn’t “obligated” to do it for “free”? Legally? No. However, many morally reprehensible things are not “illegal”. A very wealthy man taking ten grand from a charity to say a few words – depriving the needy beneficiaries to add to one’s luxury slush fund – is on the far side of the morally reprehensible scale. As for the suggestion that an MP giving a public address and not charging for it is somehow unusual or worthy of attack is simply unfathomable. I guess in the topsy turvy “progressive” world, taking $10,000 from a charity should be the norm, while giving public address (as MP’s do almost daily) without charging the listeners ridiculous sums of money is something that should be viewed with suspicion.
            I have so much to learn from today’s progressive left.

          • charles, dear – you seem to have somehow found yourself on the wrong thread. This one is about the refurbishing of 24 Sussex.

          • Jan, firstly, this comment thread would be dead, but for my comments – other than you most seem more than willing to engage in the subject. Second, I tried and I tried, but I just couldn’t seem to find a thread where young Justin was scrutinized.
            Gee, it’s almost as if there’s no interest in scrutinizing the leading candidate who wants to lead our country. I guess if he’s “progressive” that’s good enough for the folks here and elsewhere in the media.
            Tell me Jan, do you think a man who has no need for money, but demands 10,000 dollars from a charity (thereby depriving someone who very, very much needs that money) has the fabric to be a great leader? That’s not someone I would be interested in having anything to do with, let alone entrust our government to.
            Then again, I haven’t been properly trained in the finer ways of being a “progressive”. Have patience with me Jan, I have so much to learn from the media and their supportive commenters and other travellers of the left.

          • And I from today’s hypocritically populist right.

          • Here’s what I don’t get – what do charities need money for if everyone but the “morally reprehensible” is giving them everything for free?

          • I guess they understand what charles does not: that sometimes, investing a little money will reap a big return. Justin Trudeau was the investment; his talks brought in big returns. Charles and Francie just keep getting mixed up in the comment threads, that’s all; they just aren’t that bright, unable to focus on subject.

          • It’s commonplace for those who’ve made fortunes to give back to the community. We see “celebrities” taking on various causes all the time. Then we see Silver spoon Justin, wealthy beyond belief, demanding 10g’s from a middle school to do what he’s paid to do in any event. The cops that come in to talk about police work. Parents who work with student groups. Professionals that come to speak on “career day”. It would be scandalous for any of those to demand money. But Justin? He has no qualms about it.
            Better Justin can buy a round of high priced Vodka in Monte Carlo without dipping into his trust fund, than a poor kid getting a bursary to get him out of poverty.

          • “wealthy beyond belief”


            If Justin is your idea if wealthy beyond belief, then how do you describe the Thomsons? The Bronfmans?

          • And the notion of Trudeau just speaking for a charity without demanding 10 gs is unthinkable.
            I guess I’m not smart enough to appreciate that taking 10 g’s out of the hands of a needy child is a really, really good thing. So much to learn from my progressive friends.

          • its called a speaking fee, and was agreed in advance, its not ‘demanding’

            I suppose people like you living off the teat of the country sucking up welfare and EI like the rightard you are though would not understand receiving money for work.

          • It’s good to see Trudeau’s defenders unapologetic about all this. I suspect when more Canadians are informed of this they won’t be so charitable with their understanding.
            I have no doubt that if Trudeau saw an old lady fall down beside him and he offered to help her up if she gave him $20 those here would engage in similar gymnastic contortions to justify it. (Indeed this is arguably less repugnant as at least picking up old ladies isn’t part of his MP job description for which he gets paid as is speaking to school kids).
            “Hey a millionaire trust fund MP is entitled to make a buck where he can”.
            Welcome to today’s “progressive” left.

          • By your logic it was the charity’s that took 10 g’s of their donors money out of the hands of a needy chid. Except most rational people view it as an investment.

          • Let me help you out with that lenny, because clearly you’ve been nowhere near a charity (which may also explain your defence of the indefensible). There are folks called “volunteers” and they donate their time. Other folks donate their money. Together they work together for a cause. They invariably have a target beneficiary, such as….say sick children who need expensive care. Such care costs money. Volunteers organize the getting of the money, then give it to the needy.
            In Trudeau’s case, rather that using his celebrity to help the needy, he uses it to line his already full pockets, taking large sums of money that could go to the needy from charities. So instead of ….say… a child getting funds for an expensive new treatment to put his cancer in abeyance and give the child a few more months to live….Trudeau gets to leave his massive trust fund intact while he spends the money for….say…a cool party with all of his cool friends.
            What a man this is who wants to lead our country.

          • And you refer to “everyone”. Obviously not. A plumber called in to fix a pipe isn’t morally bound to not charge for his services. As for trust fund millionares who already get paid by the public to do the very thing he was doing (MP’s routinely speak at schools as part of their functions) to demand $10,000? Yes, that’s despicable, and Trudeau did it as long as he could until he decided to make a run for the leadership. He knew he could count on his friends in the media to keep it under wraps afterwards. (Though I suppose the CPC won’t be so understanding come election time…those evil conbots…daring to suggest taking money from needy children is a bad thing.)
            Literally taking money from needy children while he has more money than he knows what to do with. A veritable Mother Theresa in our midst. Such a great, great man.

          • That still doesn’t explain what they need money for…unless you’re suggesting that someone is charging sick children money for their treatment?
            And with all those lovely volunteers doing everything, I wonder why a charity like the Grace Foundation spends half it’s budget on Salaries?

          • Come on, Chucky. ‘Splain to me how charities work.

          • youre a totally transparent hypocrite

  2. Meh … Stevie keeps gettin one of his minions to ‘work the numbers’ for him …. but they keep underestimating repairs. Kinda like business as usual then eh?

  3. Surely we should make some facile comparison to the vaunted
    private sector where, as we know, the chieftains live in yurts.

  4. Question….there are 4 acres there…could a new state-of-the-art home be built….in the ‘back yard’ so to speak… before the old house is torn down?

  5. I think there is a chance the place could be fixed up if Justin Trudeau becomes PM. He grew up there and his sense of security would probably not mandate that he live there and prevent the place from being repaired.

  6. “That’s just what they want: us out of here, he’d say. This town still doesn’t think we belong here. I don’t care if the goddamned roof caves in, we’re not moving.”

    That’s interesting. We are going to have to pry PM Harper’s cold dead hands off 24 Sussex’s china. I had assumed that Harper was worried that Cons base would think PM was big time charlie, as my nan would say, and Harper doesn’t want to alienate base needlessly. Libs and NDP like panjandrums but Cons and right wingers get their knickers in a twist when it appears MPs are indulging in too much airs and graces.

    24 Sussex belongs to the nation, I am not one who likes bureaucracy but even I think there should be a an org that oversees the upkeep of 24 Sussex and a few other significant public buildings. Does the GG have swish residence while PM is in drafty home?

    Aaron Ramsey – he score’s when he wants!

  7. Don’t bother with Oldboy, Wells, it was nonsensical and not in a good way. S Korea have decent sized movie industry, they make rom-coms, dramas and crime. Three good Korean movies to watch are The Chaser, Memories Of Murder and The Brotherhood of War.

  8. Ahh, your book has arrived in the territories PW. Now I’ve lost my efing library card, so it’ll cost me after all. What you get for being cheap I guess. Looking forward to it anyhow.

    • I’ve just finished it. Very good read.

    • Does your library forbid you from replacing a lost library card? Seems like a bad way to encourage people to use the library.

      • No, 3 bucks to replace it, they found it anyway. We have a great library system in the north. I could order this from just about anywhere in the country. Which is nice since the nearest good book store is in YK, 5 hours away. ( there’s always amazon, but it doesn’t seem the same)
        This particular book is ours, purchased with funds donated by the local drug store in a book drive last year. In a community where I doubt I could find 10 people who know who PW is, that’s awesome really. Great community spirit through out the north.

        • I have never forgotten my first English professor’s tale about what a public library had meant for him growing up very poor on the remote Isle of Man. Libraries are amazing things — I bet they could even bring you in archival material on microfilm, etc, via interlibrary loans. Cheers — enjoy the book.

  9. I only hope that the condition of the place is not so bad that there is mold growing, surely as a parent Mr Harper would consider his kids well being (and that of the employees working there) above political considerations.

    • The story in The Citizen indicates that mold is an ongoing problem. It certainly is curious that a PM who suffers from asthma would be so averse to a permanent fix for mold in his current residence.

      • Camannn…. Can you imagine the storm the opposition will create as soon as a new house is built?

        There is a very good reason that house is crumbling and falling down. Every successive PM has made the political calculation that they’d rather live in a piece of junk house, then deal with the inevitable political fallout of “wasting taxpayer money” to build a “mansion for himself”.

        • I wasn’t referring to building a new house – a proper renovation & refurb job would do.

  10. Hold off renos for later. Harper is no Milliken- smoking Cuban cigars and toasting the latest designated single malt with the political favourites of the day. What? Pete no longer holds up the tradition today on his measly pension? Shocking.

    Harper as lord overseer of heritage renos? Replace the kitchen staff, dining hall, oak carved pantries with a microwave, a deep freezer, and large fridge with outside ice dispenser so no time missed for Coach’s Corner.

    Would any heads of state notice? No? Orville Redenbakker and Colonel Sanders are both dead, doesn’t count.

    Grab a sweater, and chill.

  11. Why not have the private sector pay for it? You could have the dining hall brought to you by Syncrude The guest bedroom, brought to you by Nigel Wright etc….

    • “If anyone calls for me, I’ll be relaxing in the KFC Yum! library.”

      • Oh, Marquis: big mistake to have the finger-lickin’ good stuff sponsor the BOOK room! All those pages, stuck together; grease stains on the book jackets.


    • Or you could have the CBC pay for it. With Mike Holmes, you could have a wonderful house reno program for years to come. A saturday night must-see to replace Hockey Night in Canada.

      • Mike Holmes is terrifying; I would not like him around my house for long. Prefer Cherry yapping in the corner to Holmes ripping down my eavestroughs, all red-faced and yelling.

        • Ya but, he could build a custom Cabinet that would be up to minimum code!

          • I do like the idea of doing something like this as a reality show, let us all see what is happening on the reno — like a reno-cam trained onto 24 Sussex. That would be transparent! And okay, if you insist on Holmes, just let me know ahead of time so I can turn the volume off.

    • That’s the Alberta way!

  12. If you’re serious about the subject, PW, architects normally look at precedents when designing a building. I recommend (if this topic becomes part of a continuing series) looking at precedents around the world. Japan and South Korea have some prime ministers’ residences recently built (or soon-to-be-built). The University of Canberra recently unveiled the winners of a competition to design The Lodge, a new PM’s residence.
    I’m not necessarily endorsing these designs, or suggesting that what works in another country would work here, but precedents are always the starting point of any design process.

  13. Two words: Laurier House.

  14. In all honesty, was the office of Prime Minister raised to a higher level when Louis St. Laurent moved into the current main residence of the Prime Minister?

    Take a look at what is in the neighbourhood, and frankly make plans for the Harper’s to relocate. That way, more money will not be wasted because of the shape 24 Sussex Drive is in.

  15. What we need is for party leaders to agree today, that in 2023, or 2028, or some inordinate time in the distant future, the current building will be bulldozed and a new one built on the site.

    The 10-15 year lag between decision and build will ensure that the PM of the day can say, “hey, my hands are tied, it’s that last (or last last!) guy’s fault!!”, and no one can accuse them of building a taj mahal for themselves (well, they probably will accuse them of that anyway, but at least it won’t sting as much).

    Thus, we can finally be a country where our Prime Minister doesn’t have to live in a broken down, no heat, piece of junk house. I suppose they should do the same for Stornaway and the GG’s house too, but I think those are at least repairable and don’t need to be bulldozed.

  16. As someone who’s renovated multiple Heritage homes, I can attest that the Contractor’s price will most likely double by the time the home is ready to move in to. I restored a home built in 1860…..and once the walls come down in an old home, you invariably find a lot more than you were bargaining for. Imagine the skeltons in the walls of 24 Sussex…..especially after Liberal upon Liberal have take up residence there.
    Add a Government connection….and I suspect the price would be much higher than double…….
    Contractors know a good deal when they see it.

    • They might find more brown paper bags from the Mulroney era behind those walls. It could pay for itself!

  17. It’s right by the river…tear it down, install a trailer and then we can say….

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