24 Sussex Drive should be torn down, says Maureen McTeer
'An old, crumbling building with asbestos' does not reflect who we are as Canadians, ex PM's wife says
A one-time resident of 24 Sussex Drive says the prime minister's official residence is in such a state of disrepair that it should be torn down and replaced with a new structure that will make Canadians proud.
"This residence is much more than just a house — or even a place where prime ministers live while they're in office — it should represent an idea of Canada," Maureen McTeer, the wife of former prime minister Joe Clark, said in an interview with Rita Celli on CBC Radio's Ontario Today.
"That's why an old, crumbling building with asbestos, which we know is poison, really is so lacking of vision, if you will, and [does not reflect] who we are as Canadians."
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McTeer, an author of a book on Canada's official residences, said the building is "completely lacking" in architectural value, and not worth saving.
She pointed to the last major renovation of the residence, in 1951, which stripped the building down to its studs, removing most items of historical significance. The chandeliers are among the only fixtures that date back to 1868, the year the home was built for a prominent logging baron.
"The original home looked totally different than the one we were left with after 1950," McTeer said, "I find it quite fascinating that somehow people think it's a heritage building."
While the home itself dates back to the Confederation era, the first prime minister to live in the building was Louis St-Laurent, who moved in after the house was converted from a private residence in the early 1950s.
Asked if she would be sad to see a bulldozer raze the house, McTeer said it might not even require that sort of effort.
"It's coming down on its own, one could argue, just wait long enough," McTeer said, noting that the building was in need of basic repairs even when she lived there more than 30 years ago.
Margaret Trudeau echoed those same concerns in an interview with CBC Radio last week.
"24 Sussex is in need — has been in need since I was there 40 years ago — of major infrastructure repair, and it simply hasn't been done," Trudeau said.
Home needs tens of millions in fixes
The home repairs have been all but ignored by previous residents for fear of political reprisal.
Stephen Harper was warned by the then-auditor general Sheila Fraser in a 2008 report that the home needed more than $10 million in repairs just to make it safe to inhabit. The work was estimated to take 12 to 18 months.
Harper and his family chose to continue living in the residence, and delay any major retrofits.
The $10-million repair bill does not include funds to improve the building's interior design, or beautify the home to make it the centrepiece of our country's collection of official residences, McTeer said.
What's wrong with residence? A litany of things including the windows, which are cracked, loose in their tracks and difficult to close. The auditor general said in her report that this causes severe heat loss, and has raised heating bills to astronomical levels.
The air-conditioning units installed in the windows were nearing the end of their useful lives in 2008. They are noisy and inefficient, and a major energy suck.
The house was wired for electricity — using the old "knob and tube" wiring — more than 50 years ago, and the electrical system has been operating at near maximum capacity for decades, a potential fire hazard.
The ceilings and interior walls need to be opened up to replace the wiring, but also to add new air ducts for ventilation, install a sprinkler system for fire protection and to remove toxic materials, such as asbestos.
Service areas of the home, such as the kitchen and the basement laundry, are simply not functional.
A number of people who called in to Ontario Today's program suggested the home could be a model of environmental sustainability, and a source of inspiration for other Canadians to retrofit their homes or use alternative energy sources such as solar and geothermal power technologies.
The Sierra Club of Canada has also floated that idea.
A home to make Canadians proud
McTeer suggests making the new residence a national project in advance of Canada's 150th anniversary.
"I would very much like to see a house built which is worthy, if you will, of all that is best in Canada. Our best people putting it together, our best architects, our best designers, our best furniture makers, and make it a project for Canada 2017," McTeer said.
The home should be built on the same two-hectare plot of land on Sussex Drive, McTeer said, because the current vantage point is one worth keeping in public hands because of its stunning vistas of the Gatineau Hills.
But regardless of what transpires, Canadians should be widely consulted on future plans for the residence, she said.
"The time has passed when bureaucrats behind closed doors make important decisions like this one of national significance," McTeer said, adding Canadians are increasingly demanding a more open government, so they know how their money is being spent.
The National Capital Commission, which maintains the country's official residences, would not provide a comment on its plans for the residence adding that it has not yet properly briefed prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau.
In the meantime, Trudeau and his family have chosen to forego living at 24 Sussex, taking up residence in Rideau Cottage on the grounds of the Governor General's residence.