Op-Ed: The most important house in Canada: On 24 Sussex Drive’s merits

The Prime Minister of Canada’s Official Residence at 24 Sussex Drive was originally built in 1868, and has undergone multiple modifications since that time. (Photo credit: Alasdair McLellan)

Completed in 1868, the Main Residence at 24 Sussex Drive (originally named Gorffwysfa, or “Place of Rest” in Welsh) holds a Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO) “Classified” heritage designation. Situated on 2.15 hectares of grounds overlooking the Ottawa River, it comprises 34 rooms, covering approximately 1,010 square metres, and ancillary buildings.

Built by Joseph Merrill Currier, a lumber baron and member of the 1st Dominion Parliament—and designed by his brother James Monroe Currier of Springfield, Massachusetts—the limestone-clad main building at 24 Sussex Drive was originally a Gothic Revival villa. Described at the time as “chaste and elegant,” it mimicked the newly created Parliament Buildings.

To celebrate completion, Currier and his wife Hannah (Wright) Currier threw a party for 500 guests, which included Prime Minster Sir John A. Macdonald and his wife Lady Macdonald.

In 1870, a ballroom was added to entertain visiting Prince Arthur, future Duke of Connaught. A gala ball was held on February 16th on a “very extensive scale.” Gorffwysfa was becoming the social centre of the new capital city.

Merrill died in 1884. According to the National Capital Commission (NCC), “In 1902, the property was sold (by Currier’s son) to William Cameron Edwards, another lumber manufacturer. In 1943, the Government began the process of expropriating the house, a process that lasted into 1946 due to the vigorous objections of its then owner, Senator Gordon C. Edwards. In late 1949, the Government decided to make the house over as the residence of the Prime Minister. To render the house suitable for the Prime Minister, the architects stripped away its Victorian ornament, demolished the tower on the west front and lowered some exterior walls to regularize the massing of the house. In addition, its fenestration was completely altered, and the apparent size was about doubled, all this in the process of rendering the original house quite unrecognizable. The result suggests that the architects were attempting to create a Georgian-style house. The new house was finished and occupied, reluctantly, by Louis St-Laurent in 1951.”

Since then, it has hosted leaders from around the world.

It has been suggested in the past (mostly by non-experts) that the Main Residence at 24 Sussex Drive should be demolished on the basis that it lacks architectural merit, and that previous exterior alterations have destroyed its importance as a national heritage landmark.

Ottawa-based built-heritage architect Mark Brandt of Trace Architectures thinks otherwise. He notes that “24 Sussex scores extremely high on Historic/Associative value, and Contextual/Environmental value” and is “easily identified as a designated (or designate-able) property just under this aspect alone; a long list of historic associations of national significance.”

Brandt makes the point that the Design/Physical value is more nuanced, due to changes made over the life of the property: “The property’s physical evolution since pre-contact times, and in the almost 75 years it has been Canada’s Prime Minister’s residence, is part of its fascinating, nationally significant story and part of its heritage value.”

The alterations, in fact, add to its value.

Located on one of the National Capital’s busiest tourist routes, 24 Sussex Drive is a national heritage treasure, and was designated “Classified” (the highest category) by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO) in 1986. FHBRO stated, “The Prime Minister’s Residence was designated a Classified Federal Heritage Building because of its direct association with six prime ministers of Canada, its status as a nationally known landmark, and because of the impact of the house and its grounds on the character of the area.”

Key character-defining elements include “… the evolutionary nature of the property (modifications have substantially altered the original Gothic Revival design, first to a châteauesque appearance with towers, oriel windows and porte-cochère, and in 1949 to a more restrained and formal design); the present façades, relatively unadorned and tied together by the horizontal roof lines and rows of rectangular, shuttered windows; its major elevations and outstanding location; its circular drive–the site’s most significant surviving landscape feature–which connects the property to Sussex Drive; its magnificent views, further enhanced by its setting on the ceremonial route between the Governor General’s residence and Parliament Hill; its role as an important symbolic and visual landmark.”

Under the Official Residences Act, it is a statutory obligation of government to fully fund maintenance at 4 per cent of replacement value ($40 M) annually, in accordance with the Government of Canada’s Guide to the Management of Real Property. That has never happened. According to NCC, 24 Sussex has not seen significant investment in over 60 years.

The Act specifically states, “Notwithstanding anything in the Parliament of Canada Act, the lands described in Schedule I and the buildings thereon shall be maintained as a residence for the Prime Minister of Canada.”

In the unlikely event that a consensus for demolition should ever occur, it would therefore require considerably more than heritage blindness and a wrecking ball… it would require legislative change.

In a 2015 statement, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) said, “In terms of sustainability, the history of the house, and its status as a federal heritage building, the RAIC recognizes that the first choice would be to rehabilitate the building if feasible.”

Then RAIC vice-president Allan Teramura of Ottawa-based architects Watson MacEwen Teramura added: “Rehabilitation of a 19th-century deteriorated building into a more comfortable, efficient, safe and welcoming building is well within the realm of possibility with thoughtful design led by architects.”

According to the NCC “Official Residences of Canada – 2021 Asset Portfolio Condition Report,” the Main Residence at 24 Sussex Drive carries a Facility Condition Index (FCI) of 0.91 (DFRP Rating = Critical) and is considered a very high priority building, with an API score of 97. Given its current condition and API, a major rehabilitation of the Main Residence is recommended.

The 2022 NCC report Revitalizing the Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada recommended “recapitalization and redesign of the existing building at 24 Sussex Drive.”

Vacant since 2015—when newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided not to occupy the official residence in order to allow NCC access for repairs—Joseph Currier’s “place of rest” is currently a construction site, as asbestos and other hazardous materials are removed under a $4.8 M contract with PWGSC.

On May 29th, then Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) Minister Helena Jaczek announced that a plan for the future of 24 Sussex would be delivered “by fall.” In the recent cabinet shuffle, Jean-Yves Duclos has replaced Jaczek as minister.

Hopefully, Duclos will honour his predecessor’s commitment to Canadians. It’s past due. 24 Sussex deserves a future… on its merits.

-Ken Grafton