Gorffwysfa: Official Non-Residence of the Prime Minister, and other neglected national built-heritage assets

24 Sussex, National Capital Commission
A view of 24 Sussex Drive. The Prime Minister’s official residence has not been occupied since 2015. Photo by sookie via Flickr Commons.

“Gorffwysfa” is the original name of 24 Sussex Drive, the Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada. It is a Welsh word meaning “place of rest.” According to the Official Residences of Canada – 2021 Asset Portfolio Condition Report, released recently by the National Capital Commission (NCC), it needs a lot of work – approximately $37 million worth of restoration.

Rather than occupy the official residence, as previous prime ministers have done (hence the designation “Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada”), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose instead to reside at the Governor General’s cottage (Rideau Cottage) on the grounds of Rideau Hall. Visiting heads of state and other dignitaries today are left wondering why the head of government is living in a cottage intended originally to house the Governor General’s secretary.

Gorffwysfa has an evolutionary architectural history. Designed as a Gothic Revival villa in 1867 by architect J.M. Currier for his brother, Ottawa lumber baron and MP Joseph Currier, it has undergone numerous changes over the years. Expropriated by the Crown from then owner MP Gordon Edwards in 1946, in order to prevent future commercialization of the shoreline (a policy which explains why Ottawa is virtually bereft of waterfront dining establishments today), it was initially leased to the Australian High Commission. In 1950 it was decided to transform 24 Sussex into a prime ministerial residence. A large addition was constructed and extensive remodelling done, which NCC architect David Scarlett described as a “de-Victorianization” of the building. The result was the pseudo-Georgian style house standing today. Its first official occupant was Louis St. Laurent. Further changes were made by Lester Pearson (who enclosed the rear patio), and by Pierre Trudeau who added an enclosed pool in 1975 – for our current PM to splash in.

It holds a Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO) “classified” heritage designation. The main residence has a Facility Condition Index (FCI) of 0.91 (DFRP Rating = CRITICAL) and is considered a very high priority building, with an Asset Priority Index (API) score of 97. Translated, this means that 24 Sussex is a high-value heritage asset in critical need of repair. The report recommends a major rehabilitation.

Many Canadian taxpayers wonder why the NCC has allowed our Official Residences to fall into disrepair.

The NCC describes its role as “custodian of the six official residences” and claims “The National Capital Commission is the federal Crown corporation dedicated to ensuring that Canada’s Capital is a dynamic and inspiring source of pride for all Canadians, and a legacy for generations to come.” The NCC Transparency website states, “Through Capital Stewardship and Protection, the NCC aims to protect assets of national significance in Canada’s Capital Region and to continue to enhance the Capital for future generations of Canadians.”

Why has the NCC failed so miserably?

Neglect of our official residences is not a new problem. The 2008 Auditor General’s Report indicated that 24 Sussex was showing “…signs of fatigue and wear…” and requires extensive repair work. It concluded in Para 6.41 “The constant postponement of the rehabilitation of 24 Sussex Drive may entail…further deterioration of this heritage property, an increase in rehabilitation costs, more difficulty fulfilling official functions, and the risk of fostering a negative image of Canada with visiting foreign dignitaries.” The estimate was $10 million.

The Report states, “Decades of underfunding—a lack of timely investment in the maintenance, preservation and renewal of these properties—have resulted in a growing deferred maintenance deficit and severely deteriorating asset condition. The overall Facility Condition Index (FCI) of 0.136 for the Portfolio makes this especially clear, indicating an overall condition of “Poor,” of which 22 per cent of the Portfolio is in “Critical” condition.

The Report references the NCC 2018 Asset Portfolio Condition Report, which explained, “In 1987, following the decision to transfer responsibility of the management of the six Official Residences from Public Works and Government Services Canada to the NCC, operating funds and FTE’s were transferred but no capital funding. The NCC submitted ad hoc requests for funding for the Official Residences ($25.8 million in 1987 and $31.5 million in 1999) until the 2005-06 supplementary estimates when Treasury Board approved $3.5M for operating expenditures and $4.5 million for capital expenditures over four years to maintain and rehabilitate the Official Residences. In 2008/2009, operating expenditures went up slightly to $3.7 million, but the capital expenditures were reduced to $3 million. That same year, the NCC decided to allocate all of its capital appropriations to the highest priorities throughout the entire organization. Since then, requests for project funding for the Official Residences have been competing against all capital project funding within the NCC. The Official Residences Branch participates equally with the other NCC stewards in the annual capital allocation and re-allocation process that results in the Multi-Year Capital Plan (MYCP).”

It went on to state, “The NCC therefore has not been able to meet its’ maintenance obligations because they have not received sufficient funding from the Government. Previous requests to Treasury Board have not been successful.”

The Report indicates that nothing has changed since 2018: “As indicated in the 2018 Report, without sustainable funding, the deferred maintenance deficit will continue to grow, and the overall deterioration of Canada’s Official Residences will continue.”

NCC is now asking for $175 million over 10 years to close the deferred maintenance gap on the six official residences.

The PM considers it uninhabitable, but suitable for the kitchen staff who continue to cater meals from the kitchen at 24 Sussex to his table at Rideau Cottage. Last year taxpayers spent $8.6 million renovating the PM’s Harrington Lake cottage, which he does use for recreational purposes during the summer months.

Neglect of our national built-heritage assets represents an egregious breach of public trust by government. Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand should be held accountable.

Try to imagine this happening at 10 Downing Street, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or the Hotel de Matignon…

 

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