Ottawa

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.