Renovation realities

24 sussex

24 Sussex Drive

I am too cheap to subscribe to HGTV or the DIY network, but they are usually available for free once a year, when their various programs make for viewing that is gripping, inspiring and self-shaming at the same time. Like most people, while watching I will sometimes say to myself: “I should do that.” Unlike most people, however, I then remember that I nearly had a nervous breakdown while preparing my last house for sale, and the biggest changes I did there were new paint and flooring.

Canada’s most famous fixer upper is in the news again, thanks to a Canadian Press story about the Prime Minister’s non-residence at 24 Sussex Drive. Justin Trudeau declined to move in after being elected in 2015, and has been living in a house on the grounds of the Governor General’s residence across the road. Nonetheless, all his family’s meals are prepared in the kitchen at 24 Sussex.

The Canadian Press asked whether any of the party leaders plan to live in 24 Sussex after October’s election. The Liberals referred all questions to the National Capital Commission (which maintains the house), the NDP did not respond, and the Conservatives took the opportunity to criticize the Liberals:

“The renovation costs of 24 Sussex Drive are a failure that Justin Trudeau has been unable to fix in four years,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s spokesman, Daniel Schow, said in a statement.

“The NCC [National Capital Commission] has estimated that it will cost nearly $100 million to renovate 24 Sussex and other official residences. This is an unacceptable situation, and unfortunately, taxpayers are being stuck with the bill.”

Scheer, if elected prime minister, would “look for innovative ways to break through the red tape and the overregulation that has created this debacle,” said Schow.

Scheer’s office would not answer whether he would live at 24 Sussex if elected prime minister. All of this is pretty nervy, considering that Conservative PM Stephen Harper lived in 24 Sussex for nine years while refusing to allow any large renovations. But Scheer’s team was lucky with the timing: over the weekend, news broke that Justin Trudeau has re-hired former principal secretary Gerald Butts to advise the Liberal campaign. Given that Butts’ resignation was one of the major developments in the hugely damaging SNC-Lavalin affair earlier this year, you can’t get much more nervy than that.

Stephen Harper was understandably reluctant to okay major renos to 24 Sussex during his two minority mandates, though once he had a majority in 2011, there was a window during which he could have approved renovations. But with the house, renovations and federal bureaucracy being what they are, the approvals, planning and work would have taken years, with regular news items about exploding costs and unforeseen complications every step of the way. Harper may have concluded – not unreasonably – that he would not be suckered into taking the political hit for renovations that should have been done while Liberal PMs occupied the house for most of the previous six decades:

In a report prepared in April last year, the NCC classified 24 Sussex as being in a “critical” state of disrepair.

The report assessed the building’s replacement value at $38.46 million. At the same time it determined the cost of maintaining the structure at nearly what it’s worth: $34.53 million. That figure did not include necessary upgrades to security and grounds maintenance, nor repairs to the nearby pool building, which the NCC described as “rotting.”

The home, built in 1868 by American-born lumber baron and member of Parliament Joseph Merrill, has suffered decades of neglect since it was expropriated by the government in 1943. It last underwent major renovations in 1951.

Its outdated wiring risks causing a fire, the drain pipes regularly clog, the exterior stonework is crumbling and the building is filled with asbestos, the NCC was told last year.

It was somewhat surprising that the newly-elected Justin Trudeau was as unwilling as Stephen Harper was to authorize any of the long-overdue renovations. After all, 24 Sussex is his childhood home, where he spent the first 12 years of his life. But this was also the house to which his mother Margaret abandoned him and his two brothers, because she could not stand to be under Pierre Trudeau’s thumb any longer.

As many Canadians know, the pool and sauna building at 24 Sussex was built for Pierre Trudeau by private donors whose identities have never been disclosed. That’s right – never. There are people who barracked for years about the undisclosed donors to one of Stephen Harper’s leadership campaigns, but a sitting prime minster was gifted an indoor pool and to this day, the media has never found out who paid for it, and likely never will.

Although the National Capital Commission has included the pool building in its renovation estimates, I could not determine that it ever approved adding a Scandinavian-inspired pool-and-sauna pavilion to the grounds of a 19th-century lumber baron’s mansion.

If Andrew Scheer is elected, it seems that tearing down the pool building would be a pretty easy decision, as unpopular as it might be with his five kids. It would be an opportunity for Scheer to draw attention to his humble roots, which did not include a private pool, let alone one indoors. A Washington Post story on 24 Sussex last year reported that Trudeau and his family do use the pool.

As we learned around this time last year, Trudeau also authorized thousands in upgrades to the PM’s summer house at Harrington Lake, including new docks, a golf cart, a jungle gym and installation of a sauna that Trudeau paid for himself (what is it with the Trudeau family and saunas? The whole thing has a creepy 1970s vibe). There were also discussions about installing a helipad at the house, which is a mere 25-minute drive from 24 Sussex. Trudeau’s office denied requesting a helipad.

Opinions vary about whether to preserve or tear down 24 Sussex (or, at this point, just let it fall down), even among former residents. Maureen McTeer, wife of former PM Joe Clark, has said the house has no architectural value and should be replaced with a modern build. Former PM Kim Campbell also thinks it should be knocked down, while Paul Martin thinks it should be preserved.

One of the by-products of the years of hand-wringing and debate over 24 Sussex is that TV home-reno gurus Mike Holmes and Bryan Baeumler have hinted they might be willing to advise or oversee its renovation. I don’t know if that would speed things up, but it might defray some of the costs through a deal to televise the renovation.

It would be nice if Andrew Scheer’s boast of breaking through the ‘red tape’ that has led to this ‘debacle’ is not just hyperbole, and he becomes the prime minister who settles the future of 24 Sussex, one way or the other. Given Scheer’s timidity on many issues, I do not have high expectations – exactly the attitude required when it comes to any renovation.

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