New ideas wanted for former U.S. Embassy years after gallery idea shelved

Years after a one-time dream of a national portrait gallery was shelved, the Liberal government wants ideas on what to do with the prominent building across from Parliament Hill.

Government to unveil list of potential uses for former U.S. embassy on Aug. 18

The building at 100 Wellington St., seen here during a media tour in August 2016 ahead of consultations on its possible future uses, was built in the early 1930s. It has been empty since 1998, and the federal government says it needs "full rehabilitation." (CBC)

A prominent building across from Parliament Hill that was slated to become a national portrait gallery at the end of the Chrétien era may finally see a new, public purpose.

The former U.S. Embassy at 100 Wellington St. has sat empty for eighteen years, since American diplomats moved to Sussex Drive.

Now, after Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna promised during last fall's election campaign to ask people what the building could be used for, the federal government is doing just that. 


Portrait of an unfulfilled dream

Today, the Beaux-Arts architecture-style building needs a full renovation. 

It has mahogany paneling, marble walls, and its original 1930s elevator, but there are also holes in the walls and wires hanging from the ceiling from demolition work done a decade ago for the promised gallery.

Media were given a tour of 100 Wellington St. in August 2016, as the federal government prepared to launch public consultations to turn it into a "key Canadian institution." (CBC)

Back in January 2001, then-Heritage Minister Sheila Copps under Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that the building, which had served as the U.S. Embassy since the 1930s, would become the future home of a National Portrait Gallery.

That became a tortuous road.

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

Demolition work was done at 100 Wellington St. prior to 2006. The former Liberal government planned to turn the building into a national portrait gallery. (CBC)

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 languishing since.

Town hall and online session

On Aug. 18, the federal government will hold a session for the public at the Sir John A. Macdonald Building at 144 Wellington St. from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and stream it online on the Public Services and Procurement Canada Facebook page.

It will make public a list of potential uses, and ask people for their own ideas in an online survey that will close Sept. 9.

"We want to hear the views of Canadians from coast to coast to coast on how to transform this important heritage building into a Canadian institution for all to enjoy," said minister Judy Foote in a statement.

And while the current federal government promises to turn the building into a "key Canadian institution," none of the public material so far makes reference to a portrait gallery, or those paintings and sculptures still sitting in the vault.

The view of Parliament from inside the heritage building at 100 Wellington St. (CBC)