OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
April 28, 1951
One of the best-known addresses in Canada is 24 Sussex Drive, the official home of the Prime Minister.
It is situated across the street from Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, in the tony New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa. The home, located on a four-acre estate, is perched on a cliff beside the French Embassy with splendid views of the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills.
Unfortunately, the house has been unoccupied since 2015, its last residents being Stephen Harper and his family. With it becoming increasingly dilapidated, Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, chose to live with their three children at Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, rather than punish themselves by living at 24 Sussex Drive.
Actually, the house is worse than dilapidated.
That adjective was used more than a decade ago to describe it; unlike fine wine the building has not improved with age. 24 Sussex is stuffed with asbestos, its wiring is a fire hazard, its roof leaks as does the plumbing, there’s mould in the basement, and it is home to little forest critters. As well, the rooms are freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. There is no central air-conditioning. Plus, then there’s its inadequate security. Just ask Aline Chrétien, who held off an intruder in 1995.
Simply put, 24 Sussex Drive is scarcely fit to live in let alone be the official residence of the head of government of a G-7 country.
Besides the odd coat of paint and roll of wall paper, there has been little significant investment in the fabric of the home since the1970s, the victim of political optics. What prime minister wants to take responsibility for spending millions of tax payers dollars on their home? It’s political dynamite. The last person to have any money spent on the building was Pierre Trudeau back in the mid-1970s when anonymous donors coughed up $150,000 for an indoor swimming pool and sauna connected by an underground tunnel to the main dwelling. Much of the building dates from the early 1950s.
So, how did we arrive at this sorry situation?
Part of the problem may lie in a confusion in the public mind between what is spent for official purposes and what is spent for personal purposes. The two overlap. All prime ministers want 24 Sussex to reflect their personal taste, after all its their home, possibly for a decade or more if they are electorally successful. But frequent leadership changes can lead to wasteful decorating changes. As well, cosmetic alterations can become co-mingled with necessary structural and maintenance expenditures.
Until 1951, Canada’s prime ministers had no official residence.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King lived at his home called Laurier House in Sandy Hill from 1923 until his death in 1950. King had inherited the house from Zoé Laurier, the wife of another former prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier for whom the house was named. R.B. Bennett, King’s predecessor, lived in palatial splendour in a multi-room suite at the Château Laurier Hotel during his term in office. King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent, lived with his wife in a modest, rented flat in The Roxborough Apartments while in Ottawa.
In 1943, the federal government expropriated 24 Sussex Street from the then-owner, Gordon Cameron Edwards. (It was Sussex Street not Sussex Drive. The change in name was to come in 1953.)
The government was concerned about the possible "commercialisation" of a property so close to Rideau Hall. There was also a concern that other governments might buy the highly desirable property with such commanding views and choice location. The British government had purchased the nearby Earnscliffe, the former home of Sir John A. Macdonald, in 1930 while the French Government had purchased and built its Embassy on the neighbouring property a few years later. With the Mexican government reportedly taking an interest in the old house, the Canadian government decided to expropriate the property. It took three years to negotiate the price after Edwards balked at what the government offered in compensation.
The court settled on $140,000 plus costs of $7,319 which was more than the $125,000 the government initially offered but far less than the $251,000 demanded by Edwards.
Almost from the very beginning, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought that the mansion would make an excellent "permanent and non-political residence for Canada’s prime ministers," though the idea wasn’t made official until 1949.
While the location was superb, many had doubts about the building, then almost eighty years old. At an expropriation hearing, a real estate agent said that the house, which had been previously remodelled in in 1907-10, didn’t fit the needs of 1943.
Six years later, the Ottawa Citizen wondered whether remodelling the Edwards home was the right course of action as the building was "already old and out of date" and had no particular distinction. The newspaper also claimed it was draughty, ill-heated, and inconvenient.
The house was originally built over a two-year period from 1866-1868 by Joseph Merrill Currier. Currier was one of Ottawa’s lumber barons, and from 1863 to 1882 the Conservative member of Parliament for Ottawa, barring a few months in 1877 when he had to resign and seek re-election over conflicts of interest. He left politics in 1882 and was appointed Ottawa’s postmaster.
Currier built the home for his third wife, Hannah Wright, a descendent of Philemon Wright, the founder of Hull, Quebec. He called it by the Welsh name Gorffwysfa meaning "Place of Peace." Reportedly, Currier’s brother James, who was an architect, helped in the neo-gothic design which was undoubtedly inspired by those other neo-gothic buildings under construction at the time -- the Parliament buildings.
In 1870, the Curriers hosted Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, at a ball held in his honour at 24 Sussex. Prince Arthur, also known as the Duke of Connaught, was later to become Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. For the royal event, Currier built a ballroom at the rear of the home which was later turned into a picture gallery.
After Curriers passed away in 1884, his widow lived in the home until her death in 1901, whereupon the house went to their son, James E. W. Currier, who sold it in 1902 to William Cameron Edwards for $30,000.
Edwards was at the time the Liberal member of Parliament for the district of Russell. In 1903, he was appointed to the Senate. Edwards made significant modifications to the building, including adding a turret, a curved window on the second floor, and a covered entrance. On his death in 1921, 24 Sussex was bequeathed to his nephew Gordon Cameron Edwards who was the last private owner of the property. After the Canadian government expropriated it, the home was leased on a short-term basis to the Australian government.
In 1948, the government hired the modernist Toronto architectural firm Allward & Gouinlock to renovate the building.
The firm’s treatment of the building was not sympathetic to the original design. It totally changed both its exterior and interior. In addition to adding a new wing, the architects stripped the house of its neo-gothic features. Gone were its turret and gingerbread. The ballroom picture gallery where Prince Arthur had danced was demolished to make way for an outdoor terrace. The garage and chauffeur’s quarters were also demolished. Inside, the principal rooms were reversed so that they overlooked the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills rather than facing the street.
The renovations cost more than $300,000. With an additional $105,000 spent on furnishings, the total cost of the new official residence for Canada’s prime minister came in at roughly $550,000 (equivalent to $6.3-million in today’s dollars).
The Conservative Opposition was not impressed.
Rodney Adamson, the Progressive Conservative member for York West, commented that it would have been cheaper to build a completely new residence rather than change 24 Sussex St. around so that the Prime Minister could have a view of the Ottawa River.
Subsequently, a Vancouver newspaper whined that the "final piece of extravagance" was an iron fence that was to be built around the property. It opined that maybe next to come were "a platinum portcullis and a squad of gold-embossed halberdiers."
This was clearly a more innocent time when security was not deemed a high priority by some. However, the comment underscored why future governments became squeamish about spending money on the prime minister’s residence. Any money spent would be considered either a waste or self-serving.
Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his wife, moved into their new home on April 28, 1951, though their official move date was May 1, when their lease was up on their apartment at the Roxborough.
The prime minister was not keen about having an official residence. "Uncle Louis" was a modest man.
Before he would move in, he insisted on paying $5,000 per year for room and board, roughly what he had been spending before. This amounted to one-third of his prime ministerial salary. Politicians and bureaucrats reluctantly acquiesced to this demand, and it was written into the legislation passed for the maintenance of the home. Some years later, the law was changed so that the prime minister lived rent free. C.D. Howe, the Minister for Trade and Commerce, called the new prime ministerial residence "not a palace" but "dignified" and "well-equipped," an official residence of which Canadians could be proud.
There are fourteen principal rooms in the house, with a formal drawing room and dining room for 24 persons overlooking the Ottawa River. There is a pine-panelled library to the left of the main entrance with an open fireplace. The ground floor was designed so that 150-200 guests could easily circulate between drawing room, dining room and library. A kitchen and pantry are also on the ground floor. On the second floor are the family living room and the main bedrooms with bathrooms. On the top floor are guest and staff bedrooms. A small elevator was installed that ran from the basement to the top floor.
There was some speculation in the press about the home’s name.
Its original Welsh name was not in the running; few could spell it or pronounce it. The Ottawa Journal argued that to follow the British example and call the home 24 Sussex Street would be too prosaic. However, Canada House, Beaver House and Maple Leaf Gardens were already taken, and it couldn’t come up with a better idea. Regardless, newspapers thought that given time the address would become as well-known as London’s 10 Downing Street or Washington’s White House.
That prediction has come true. However, today the home is more infamous than famous. Instead of being dignified prime ministerial residence, it has become a money pit. More than ten years ago, a real estate agency thought that the property, then appraised at $7.5-million, was worth more without the house.
Many want the building pulled down, including Maureen McTeer, the wife of former prime minister Joe Clark. McTeer thinks it’s a dump without any redeeming architectural merit.
Others, including some historians, disagree.
Now that roughly a dozen prime ministers have lived in it, perhaps the residence has acquired some prime ministerial patina that’s worth preserving. As well, the residence has hosted distinguished visitors, such as the Queen, Sir Winston Churchill and John and Jackie Kennedy, who have provided their own gloss.
Renovating the old house will not come cheap.
In 2018, the National Capital Commission, announced that to fix up the six official residences owned by the Government in the Ottawa region would cost $83-million over ten years.
Only Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s home, and Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition, are in good condition.
Ominously, Harrington Lake in the Gatineau hills, the country home of the prime minister, is considered to be in poor condition. If governments shy away from spending money on the official residence of the prime minister, the odds of a summer retreat getting sufficient funding look even more grim.
Meanwhile, entropy prevails. The official residences continue to deteriorate and the cost to restore them continues to climb.