Sober second look? National portrait gallery gets bipartisan Senate support

In a rare show of unity, a bipartisan group of senators have rallied in support of an idea thought long-forgotten — turning the old U.S. embassy in Ottawa into a national portrait gallery.

Conservative government cancelled plans to turn 100 Wellington St. into gallery

Built from 1931 to 1932, the Beaux-Arts style building at 100 Wellington St. has sat empty for 18 years, ever since American diplomats moved to their current home on Sussex Drive. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The reputation of the Red Chamber is still taking a beating after the actions and comments of senators Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak, and there are emerging accusations of gamesmanship, "threats," and legislative "ambushing," being lobbed across the aisles.

But there is one thing they seem united on — turning the old U.S. embassy in Ottawa into a national portrait gallery.

On Tuesday Liberal Senator Serge Joyal, Conservative Paul McIntyre and Senator independents Patricia Bovey and Douglas Black sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to support resurrecting the gallery project for Canada's 150th birthday.

Fifty-five of the 99 sitting senators have signed on to the initiative, including members of the Conservative and Liberal Party caucuses as well as members of the independent senators group.

"National Archives' portraits should be its base, but the gallery should be much more — vibrant, living, not just of the past but of the present," reads the letter, noting the archives has more than 20,000 portrait paintings and photographs.

"We believe the time has come to put this collection on display to tell the story of Canadians to Canadians…Many countries, including England, the United States and Australia have a permanent National Portrait Gallery. In London and Washington, for instance, young people make up the majority of attendees."

Abandoned building 

The former U.S. Embassy at 100 Wellington St., a prominent spot across from Parliament Hill, was slated to become a national portrait gallery at the end of the Chrétien era.

An institution was created, with staff, but the large collection of portraits never left the vault.

When the Conservative government took power, it cancelled the project on Wellington Street, and in November 2007 launched a national competition for private sector bidders to house the portraits in one of nine cities.

Bids came in from places like Calgary, Edmonton, and from Ottawa's Claridge Homes to use a property that now houses a grocery store in a condo building on Metcalfe Street.

Politicians including then-MP Paul Dewar and then-senator Jerry Grafstein fought to keep the portrait gallery in Ottawa.

But in November 2008, the Conservative government pulled the plug on that plan too, saying none of the bids met its bar.

The building has been empty ever since.

In August 2016 Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote released a list of six proposals for the site, and later polled the public on their preferences.

The top three choices were an Indigenous cultural centre, an art gallery and a "Canada House" venue that would give visitors a "taste of the country's diversity achievements" while also showcasing "the best of the provinces and territories."