The childhood home of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is back in the headlines after a recently leaked report revealed that the federal government is considering abandoning the historic, but dilapidated 24 Sussex, home to the country’s prime ministers since 1951.
The Canadian equivalent of the UK’s 10 Downing Street, which welcomed John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II and other world leaders, has been in decline for decades. According to a 2021 report by the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages the property and other official residences, the house is full of asbestos and rodents, and its aging electrical system has become a fire hazard.
According to Radio-Canada, which leaked the report, plans are now afoot for a larger, more secure edifice in another location. But the office of public services and procurement minister Jean-Yves Duclos refused to confirm this plan. It said in a statement that it “continue[s] to work closely with the National Capital Commission to develop a plan for the future of 24 Sussex Drive”.
A spokesperson for the NCC tells The Art Newspaper, “The project currently underway at 24 Sussex includes work that must be done to secure the site regardless of any decision taken by the government on the future of the residence.”
A 2021 estimate from the NCC said it would cost C$36.6m ($27m) to restore 24 Sussex to a safe and habitable condition and noted that other historic official residences were also at risk due to improper maintenance. A proposed new residence that could be built in nearby Rockcliffe Park would cost an estimated C$40m ($29.6m).
Heritage advocate Marc Denhez of Historic Ottawa Development told a recent press conference that “Canadians have seen no evidence that this new build would cost a nickel less than a fix-up [of 24 Sussex]”. At the same event Natalie Bull, the National Trust for Canada’s executive director noted that “24 Sussex is a landmark and a touchstone with people and events that have shaped our national story. It’s the real thing with layers of history intact.”
A momentous address
Completed in 1868, shortly after Canada’s confederation, the main residence at 24 Sussex Drive holds a Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO) heritage designation of “classified”. It was built by timber baron and member of the 1st Dominion Parliament Joseph Merrill Currier as a Gothic Revival villa on 2.15ha of land overlooking the Ottawa River. It was later modified and now comprises 34 rooms covering around 1,010 sq. m.
While under the Official Residences Act, the government is obliged to fully fund maintenance at 4% of replacement value (C$40m) annually, that has never happened. The NCC says it has been 60 years since there has been any major investment in repair or restoration to 24 Sussex.
Just as Boris Johnson’s refurbishment of 10 Downing Street became mired in controversy and US President Harry Truman held off on publicly disclosing his renovation of the White House in 1948 even after a piano crashed through a ceiling, the cost of renovating official residences remains a political hot potato. Pierre Poilievre, the leader of Canada’s official opposition Conservative Party has accused Trudeau of “mansion building” amid a national housing crisis. Poilievre’s words may come back to haunt him: his own taxpayer-funded mansion, Stornoway, has been suggested as an alternative prime minister’s residence.