Heritage Group Proposes Plan to Revive 24 Sussex, Canada’s Prime Ministerial Residence

Prime minister's official residence at 24 Sussex Drive
Prime minister's official residence at 24 Sussex Drive

To secure the future of 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Canada’s prime ministers, a coalition of experts from the construction industry has proposed a restoration plan. Historic Ottawa Development Inc. (HODI), a non-profit organization comprising architects, conservationists, and project managers with expertise in preserving heritage buildings, argues against letting the 150-year-old building fall into disrepair.

HODI emphasizes that the residence has long been a focal point in Canadian politics and should not be left to deteriorate. Marc Denhez, HODI’s president and former member of the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) official residences advisory committee, questioned the accuracy of reports claiming the house is severely decayed.

“We have a number of experts at our disposal and all of them unanimously have said the $36.6 million figure is for the birds,” Denhez told CBC News.

According to a 2021 NCC report, the building’s condition is “critical,” requiring over $36 million for deferred maintenance alone. It also cited the property’s “current replacement value” as $40.1 million.

“It can be done for a lot less money if you know how to kick the tires. And we have people who know how to kick tires,” Denhez added.

Denhez rebutted the idea, recently floated by government sources, of appropriating land in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park for a new residence, citing that it would be more costly than renovating the existing Gothic Revival-style building.

“Don’t compare us to Jesus Christ. Compare us to the alternative and the alternative is kicking out park goers and putting a glass box in the middle of parkland,” Denhez stated.

Denhez also noted that ongoing remediation work to remove asbestos and update electrical systems was already taking place. He questioned the necessity of allocating millions merely for clearing out rodents from the building.

He further argued that the official state functions usually hosted by the King’s representative can continue to be held at Rideau Hall, a venue already well-equipped for such events.

“What the prime minister needs,” Denhez explained, “is a respectable home worthy of a G7 leader with space for family and rooms to host smaller affairs of state.”

Although a spokesperson for the NCC declined to comment on the property’s future, they did confirm that the residence had been closed last fall for “health and safety reasons.” Construction for the removal of hazardous substances is slated to begin this September.

Meanwhile, a government source revealed that Public Services and Procurement Minister Jean-Yves Duclos would soon unveil a plan for 24 Sussex.

Ken Grafton, a project manager at HODI, urged the government to consider their proposal seriously.

“The historic value of the home is very high. Think of all the world leaders that have been through there. It’d be ridiculous to demolish that. The government can’t be that callous,” Grafton said.

Mark Brandt, a senior conservation architect, expressed support for HODI’s efforts. He outlined a plan that includes an addition to the existing residence for official purposes.

“All this talk of demolishing a historic building — it’s crazy. The residence can be saved and it can be rehabilitated. There’s no reason to lose the history or the gravitas of the place,” Brandt commented.

Although security concerns have been cited as a reason to reconsider the site, Brandt believes these issues can be mitigated.

“The home’s neighbours, the French embassy and the governor general’s residence, seem to be quite happy with the security situation. Security is a challenge but I also think it’s a red herring. We have great minds who’ve dealt with this before and they can do it again,” he said.

Brandt also noted that other residences, such as the White House, face greater security challenges than 24 Sussex.