The View From Here – Not every old house needs to be preserved, especially one as rundown as 24 Sussex Drive

Tom Henihan

It must be a peculiarly Canadian phenomena having a national conversation on how to proceed with “24 Sussex Drive,” the Prime Minister’s official residence.”

The riddle is whether to renovate the existing house or tear it down and build something new, more contemporary, less colonial.

A persuasive argument for demolishing the old house and building a new one, is the estimated cost of $38 Million to renovate the existing structure, which is of no cultural or historical significance, except that it has been the official residence since Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent moved in 1951.

Even then, St. Laurent was reluctant to move into 24 Sussex and did so under duress, so it is fair to assume that more than Justin Trudeau have had an aversion to living there.

That Justin Trudeau decided to take up residence in a smaller, less opulent environment than 24 Sussex Drive, may be that he remembers that it was already in decline when he last resided there.

Considering the price tag to refurbish the present house, it would seem an easy choice to go with a new, more representative, more contemporary edifice.

Some have suggested that architecturally, a new residence would be an opportunity to incorporate First Nations cultural inflections into public buildings and to have those cultural references reflected back at us as part of our collective cultural identity.

Predictably, there are those who believe that everything old requires preservation and protection, and these people are adamant that the house be repaired rather than destroyed.

But not everything gains significance or esthetic value with age.

Judging from photographs I’ve seen, the exterior of the house looks austere and purely functional. The interior by contrast is garish, overly ornate and florid like a gilded cage.

So it hardly seems prudent to sink $38 million into refurbishing a nondescript house that some suggest has been neglected for too long and is past repair.

But if they are to go ahead and refurbish, it is likely, that undertaking such extensive renovations while adhering to present day building codes would call for some design changes, which may defeat the idea of preserving the house in the first place.

A great many Canadians would argue that spending $38 million to either refurbish a house or build a new one could never be justified, which is why no recent prime minister has broached the subject of renovating 24 Sussex Drive.

Political expediency is far more important than letting the house fall into disrepair, especially when you won’t get to live in for long if you spend all that money fixing it up.

As Justin Trudeau told the CBC some time ago: “No prime minister wants to spend a penny of taxpayer dollars on upkeeping that house.”

Eventually, some decision must be made and those involved in making that decision should keep in mind that no country loses prestige by keeping things in proportion.

If the government cannot build a suitable prime minister’s resident for less that $38 million, it must be imagination that they are lacking.


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