The sad state of the home of the Prime Minister of Canada
OTTAWA – After Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015, he kept his family away from the Prime Minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
It’s because the old house is literally falling apart.
The limestone walls are so decrepit (from collapsing stone and rotten mortar) that stones could fall at any time.
It is not safe to stand near the walls.
Instead, the Trudeaus moved into nearby Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, where the Governor General lives. The chalet is a 22 room, 10,000 square foot red brick house built in 1867 and listed as one of 49 annex buildings to the six official residences.
But the evacuation of the 24 Sussex Drive building did not save Canadian taxpayers as much money as one might think.
During the Trudeau years, Canadians spent over $ 3.6 million on tasteful heritage repairs, upgrades and renovations to Rideau Cottage, without repairing the official residence at 24 Sussex.
Now the documents obtained under the Freedom of Information legislation show the details of the work, from the roof (brand new) to the siding (just as new) and everything in between. There was $ 16,000 for the painting; a JennAir range of $ 4,200; piano tuning at $ 780 per piece; and $ 3,000 to dust off these high, hard-to-reach places. Then: $ 305,000 in paving and landscaping; $ 189,000 for a roof; and $ 343,000 in heritage interior renovations. (Figures rounded to the nearest thousand.)
The most expensive items are safety related (like $ 827,000 for new fences, gates and associated work). The grounds of Rideau Hall already have a tall iron fence, but the federal authorities have added fencing inside the fences for Rideau Cottage. And guard huts and gates.
Although the chalet is not an official residence, it is certainly starting to look like one. On paper, the Prime Minister lives there only temporarily. But he is in his third term, and there is no work currently planned that would allow future prime ministers to return to 24 Sussex.
The National Capital Commission, the federal government’s property manager, says the six official residences are generally in “pitiful” condition. He announced in June that they needed repairs worth $ 175 million over 10 years.
The problem: a “deferred maintenance deficit” – a polite and bureaucratic term for neglect. Like a 1990 car that rarely sees a mechanic, the maintenance of these homes is postponed for years, until something breaks.
The NCC cites “the backlog of major unfunded maintenance and renewal projects that have been carried over to future budgets”. And this despite $ 26 million spent on maintenance since 2018. If this continues, he says, the situation will only get worse.
Worst on the list is the grand old house at 24 Sussex, built by a timber baron in 1868 and used by prime ministers from Louis St. Laurent to Stephen Harper. The NCC says it would cost $ 36.6 million to renovate the ruined official residence and $ 40 million to demolish and rebuild it. (The repair cost is over $ 30,000 per square meter.)
The current building is pretty, but it is considered to be in “critical” condition, according to the NCC, and has design drawbacks: a dining room too large for a family, but too small to accommodate dignitaries; a kitchen in the basement with difficult access to the dining room; and limited parking for guests.
Plumbing leaks “regularly” and aged wiring is officially a fire hazard. There is mold, asbestos, and every room has a noisy air conditioner in the window in the summer – a safety risk.
A major renovation in 1950 used shoddy limestone blocks which cracked and the masonry was poorly applied, with gaps.
Since then, “24 Sussex Drive has not seen significant investment for over 60 years,” writes the NCC.
“The deterioration presents a risk to the health and safety of the occupants of the site: fragments of stones (in the walls) could easily be dislodged and fall to the ground”, warned the structural engineers four years ago. The risk is greatest on the south and west sides, where most people walk. And then there was the earthquake that hit the Ottawa area in 2010. Engineers warned of a possible “loss of structural integrity” in the walls.
The rotten 24 Sussex pool building is also in need of a brand new exterior ($ 5.3 million to replace walls, roof, doors, windows and skylight) and the old house of guard used by the RCMP needs $ 2 million worth of work. However, no one knows what to spend on a residence that may never be a real home for anyone again.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says 24 Sussex cannot simply be left behind as it soaks up money without rendering good value as the Prime Minister increasingly makes Rideau Cottage look like his official home. The national director Franco Terrazzano proposes to demolish it. He is mainly angry with the NCC, saying they “should be fired for incompetence”.
“When they come up with proposals, it seems like the only proposals are: should we spend more money or should we spend a lot more money? ” he said.
He also takes issue with the practice of giving free houses to the Leader of the Opposition (Stornoway) and the Speaker of the House (“The Farm,” a property in the Gatineau Hills.) Stornoway is rated fair, with “ many issues … including the building envelope (exterior), fire alarm, electrical and heating and cooling systems. The farm has a bad rating and is in need of an overhaul of the building envelope, plumbing, electrical and fire alarms.
Heritage Ottawa, an advocacy group, is advocating for the repair and maintenance of 24 Sussex and other residences.
David Jeanes, engineer and member of the group, notes that it is the only house Canada owns on a prominent strip overlooking the Ottawa River. The French Embassy is there, as is the home of the US Ambassador, and the British High Commissioner lives in Earnscliffe (home of Sir John A. Macdonald.)
“The Canadian government was really behind in acquiring waterfront properties that were being grabbed by other countries, and (24) Sussex Drive was really the last chance they had,” he said.
“This is a very important property. It is a house with a lot of history. It is certainly a heritage building and it should have been maintained. The fact that the bill is so high right now is a consequence of all this deferred maintenance. … And the NCC doesn’t have a lot of money. He can recommend (spending) but if the government doesn’t say “Go ahead” then there is nothing the NCC can do. “
The official residences of the capital
- 24 Sussex Drive, Residence of the Prime Minister;
- Rideau Hall, residence of the Governor General;
- Stornoway, home of the Leader of the Opposition; and
- 7 Rideau Gate, guest house for senior foreign officials.
Gatineau Park, Quebec:
- Harrington Lake, the Prime Minister’s summer residence;
- La Ferme, home of the Speaker of the House of Commons
- The Governor General also has a residence in Quebec.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION