Read Alum Nancy Oakley’s (MA/12) blog:

A Hopeful Future for 24 Sussex

Carleton University recently held a public debate about the future of 24 Sussex. Formerly the home of an Ottawa Valley lumber baron and now the long-time official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada, this historic place has remained vacant for several years. It’s true that the building needs substantial repairs and that the time has come to make that happen. What is tantamount to routine departmental budgetary approval hardly seems cause for intense public debate–even among the most fiscally responsible of Canadians, of which there are many–or does it?

It turns out there is much to get right with this project, if only to keep it from going wrong. Only a few short years ago Canada celebrated its one hundred and fiftieth birthday: some are still celebrating. At that time, some forward-thinking visionaries suggested that the building be demolished and a new residence built in order to showcase Canadian solutions to sustainability. This ran antithetical to the country’s well-established development ethos, which has consistently rejected wanton demolition of its precious few pre-modern landmarks–see the Toronto Spadina Expressway project, the Halifax Harbourfront or Gastown in Vancouver for but a few examples. The notable panel of experts came to the same conclusion as public opinion polls and many of our venerated civil servants: no to demolition, yes to sustainability-by-conservation and conserve the property to the highest possible standard.
Conserving 24 Sussex is no simple matter. The long and storied history of the place, dating back to time immemorial and including periods important to the development of North America’s and Canada’s various political legacies not only needs to be captured, but should also inspire design choices. Like a grand dame who finds happiness in a cross-border shopping excursion, 24 Sussex, for both its function as a residence and its value as a landmark to Ottawa and broader national and international landscapes deserves the investment.

The debate, however, doesn’t lie in its heritage significance–after all that is what the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada are for. Rather, it’s about the associative values of the place as the home of the Prime Minister of Canada. By way of comparison, the President of the United States is the leader of the free world and the White House is the home, office and administrative heart of the Executive Branch. The former United Kingdom balances its state interests between historic Buckingham Palace and stately 10 Downing, while Brazil’s Presidential Palace makes its relationship with its past, people and government distinctly modern and monumental.

Canadian federalism differs, and the Prime Minister’s residence is a good example of that. Our longstanding stewardship of the natural environment is expressed through visionary architects like Douglas Cardinal, Cornelia Oberlander and Arthur Erickson, whose works reveal and revere the Canadian wilderness. Overlooking the Ottawa River, 24 Sussex offers an opportunity rare for leaders of G7 countries: a residence accessible to both the contemporary urban landscape and a storied wilderness.

Security and public safety concerns have also differed somewhat from the time of Champlain and Cabot. It’s important that any additional security measures respect the historic fabric of the place. Given concerns about the financial and social costs of new security measures, there’s an opportunity here to explore time-honoured solutions that also double as a responsible investment.

Now that is a design challenge. Owing in part to their construction and materials, pre-modern buildings can be adapted to changing times and fads while retaining heritage values. This is achieved in no small part to the efforts of the artisans and craftsfolk (and the next generation too) who have built and maintained these historic places. While sustainability could hardly be considered a fad these days, the use of reclaimed and recycled materials has the added value of highlighting efforts to maintain building traditions at risk, divert waste and to profile the intrinsic value of older materials.

Some maybe quick to label the property as an example of the colonial history of the country. The dialogue about decolonization has been fascinating for the ways in which they reveal the complexity of enduring relations among cultural groups that share territory in Canada. Recent activism, influenced in part by the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter movements in the Southern US ap inpears to have put that long-standing cultural understanding at risk. The decision to remove the statue of Egerton Ryerson on university grounds in Toronto is one example of decolonization efforts that have led to the de-densification of our historic landscapes. Perhaps it is enough to state that we value history in these places precisely because it is complex and at-times contested. The colonial legacy of 24 Sussex then–associated as it is with a long history of trading relationships in the Ottawa region–doesn’t mark the end of its history but rather contributes to its context.

The Prime Minister could give the green light to the project. The Department responsible could include it in the budget. The National Capital Commission could ready its supporting documentation. Perhaps the question we really need to be asking about the restoration of 24 Sussex then is not when the project should proceed (as soon as possible is the answer) but a bigger picture question about how current and future generations will help give shape to a world where the value placed on sustainability means that our environmental limitations are greater than before. Their mediation will require significant effort in design, planning and development, among other fields, and may differ from those required in the 20th century. 24 Sussex could be among the first of contemporary conservation projects that proceed with this understanding, and for that reason alone the federal government’s leadership role in the development would be welcome. Now to make it happen.

Nancy Oakley, BA (hon), MA, is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Canadian Studies and Principle of Heritage Connects.