William Thorsell: Why it’s time to tear down 24 Sussex

The PM’s abode is as useless as it is derivative. And Canadians deserve better.

The Canadian prime ministers' residence, 24 Sussex, is seen on the banks of the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2015. Be it renovated or razed, the resurrection of 24 Sussex Drive should be documented as a showcase of Canadian history and innovation, says an expert in public portrayals of what -- and what not -- to do with older home projects.Ever since Justin Trudeau confirmed that he's giving the prime minister's official residence a wide berth, Bryan Baeumler has received several inquiries about whether he'd tackle a reno job at Canada's most famous address. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The 24 Sussex is seen on the banks of the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2015.  (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Six years ago, Paul Wells began his column in Maclean’s saying, “It has no fire sprinklers. Its walls are lined with asbestos. Its plumbing and wiring would not pass muster in any other house in Ottawa. It is drafty. Its air conditioners make a racket. It has, by all accounts, hideous carpeting on the stairs. … It is the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive, and it is time to tear the sucker down.”

That was a good argument then, and is even gooder now.

Justin Trudeau and family are not moving into 24 Sussex while they await a briefing on the case and costs of renovation. In 2006, the estimate was $10 million, and will surely be much higher now. Spending that kind of money on this kind of junk would be irrational. This is clearly a case for assisted suicide. Send the old thing to heaven pronto, and make room for something wonderfully Canadian now.

24 Sussex is a brick pile from 1868, built by a lumber baron for a third wife. It’s been the PM’s residence only since 1951, when Canada was still enthralled by trappings of colonialism. Copy-cat colonialism, third-rate colonialism — Old Europe! 24 Sussex.

The house is derivative, ugly and insensitive to its wonderful location on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River. It is fussy, cramped and cluttered inside, hopeless for public functions and claustrophobic in its Victorian details. The stair carpeting is indeed hideous.

Prime ministers grow squirrelly there. Happily, we have just thrown one out; now let’s tear it down.

Related: Scott Feschuk answers questions about Justin Trudeau’s zany living situation

Our money would be far better spent on Canadian architecture and engineering using contemporary ideas and materials to create a marvelous residence and public space. The program should include a guest wing, and rooms for public events and entertainments. Of course, the building should also take far better advantage of its location, be energy-efficient and secure in the context of modern threats. And, oh yes, it should have central air-conditioning.

A competition among Canadian architects based on a smart program would produce superb options for 24 Sussex, and ultimately a government house worthy of Canada’s individuality, responsibility, creativity, diversity — and youth.

We could crowd-fund it at 50 cents per capita, and that alone would raise $18 million. I’m in for my share. Let’s leave those morose renovation stories to reality TV.

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