It’s time to tear down 24 Sussex

Paul Wells is launching a call for bids to design the PM a new house

Ottawa Shootings 20141022

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 has not had a thorough makeover in half a century. Fixing it in 2006 would have cost $10 million. Fixing it now will certainly cost more. Whenever the repairs begin, the tenants will have to vacate the property for at least a year, probably more. It was not built for its august purpose and it does not bear its burden gracefully. It oppresses its residents—though they are required by the unbreakable codes of populism to deny any problem—and it doesn’t uplift the nation. Frankly it doesn’t even do much for the neighbourhood.

It is the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive, and it is time to tear the sucker down.

This will not go over well in certain circles. I’d call them “heritage” circles, except there is hardly any heritage left in the place, if there ever was any. It was built in 1868 by a lumber baron named Joseph Merrill Currier for his third wife, Hannah. Currier was also a member of Parliament and dabbled in various other unsavoury trades: rail transport, postal delivery, newspaper publishing. The house he built on the bluffs overlooking the Ottawa River didn’t even become a prime minister’s residence until 1951, when Louis St. Laurent moved in. So the list of PMs who never lived there—King, Laurier, Macdonald, Kim Campbell—is at least as impressive as the list of those who did. (Kim didn’t have the job long enough to move in.)

Now even if there were some national mandate to preserve the houses of Joseph Merrill Currier for future generations, that mandate would have been violated long ago. Successive tenants have added all manner of extensions, inside and out. The rules of heritage property protection have been ignored for almost as long as 24 Sussex has been a famous address.

I have never set foot in the house, though I have been an occasional guest on its lovely back lawns. Every summer the tenants invite members of the press gallery, usually through gritted teeth, to a garden party. This year the lobster sandwiches were excellent. Laureen Harper told us funny stories about hiking. Then she turned around and headed bravely back inside, and we all felt a little wistful at her burden.

Well, I overstate things. “I’d live there,” one former frequent visitor tells me, “so let’s not pretend it’s a collapsing tool shed or anything.” But he followed with a list of “structural challenges” that included a leaky roof and, well, the sunroom: “To call it drafty would be an insult to open windows.”

So look, it probably won’t collapse onto Stephen Harper tonight. It can be renovated into ship-shape condition if Harper and Michael Ignatieff (and yes, yes, you too, Elizabeth May) simply agree that the winner of the next election will not reside at 24 Sussex until it has been fixed. But it will still be a half-heritage heffalump with assorted odd bits sticking out. It will continue to be outclassed by the stunning, proudly eccentric French Embassy next door, one of the most extraordinary jewels of art deco architecture anywhere in the world.

That $10-million repair bill—which has surely grown since the estimate was made three years ago—gives us room to dream. Do you know who just bought a $10-million house? Conan O’Brien. Do you know who else has a $10-million house? Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu on The Simpsons. I’m thinking if Apu can live well, so can our own nation’s leaders.

So let’s start over. Tabula rasa, ladies and gentlemen! Surely we are no longer still just a nation of hewers of wood, drawers of water, and patchers of drywall. We can create anew! We have architects and builders to beat the world and house a king, or at least a moderately well-respected public servant!

Just think of the stimulus a new public works project would provide. Not just economic stimulus, although I have it on high authority that you can’t build a house these days without putting shovels in the ground. Designing one of the country’s most visible buildings would stimulate imaginations too. So let’s hear it. Bing Thom, what would you build for our country’s first family? Saucier + Perotte? Jack Diamond? (No fair putting a trap door in, Jack. The tenant won’t always be a Conservative.)

I’m serious. This page is launching a call for bids. I want the recognized professional architects of Canada to design a new house for the Prime Minister. What can we build on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River these days for, say, $12 million? It has to house an average-sized family comfortably. It needs space for them to play, relax, stay in shape, contemplate. It is not a functional government building, but in these days of telecommuting it will need spaces for the breadwinner to work, meet staff and pesky reporters, and welcome visiting dignitaries. Sometimes the premiers will be over to fix health care or the Constitution. There will have to be room at the big dining room table for 13 guests.

Make it green. Make it Internet-friendly. Make it secure—Jean Chrétien could tell you stories about prowlers. Make it beautiful. And make it snappy, because you’ve got a month to send in your (obviously preliminary, sketchy) ideas. Mail your proposals to “PM’s House” at Maclean’s, 150 Wellington Street, Suite 403, Ottawa, K1P 5A4. Or email them to [email protected]. Deadline for receipt of submissions is Thursday, July 23. We’ll publish the best ideas in this magazine soon after. To your drafting tables, ladies and gentlemen! A nation’s honour is at stake.

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