1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the home of the President of the United States.
10 Downey Street, the home of the UK’s Prime Minister.
24 Sussex, home to Canada’s Prime Minister.
Or at least it was.
Today, it is home to far too many corpses of rodents in the attic and basement.
But from the 1950s to the 2010s, every single prime minister except Kim Campbell and Justin Trudeau lived there.
A few weeks ago, I was asked by former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps about doing an episode on the historic building.
I thought this was a great idea.
So, let’s dive into the history of 24 Sussex Drive
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
This story begins in 1866, one year before Canada became a country.
Commissioned by Joseph Merrill Currier, the home was supposed to be a gift for his wife-to-be Hannah Wright.
Joseph came to Canada in 1837 to make his fortune in the timber trade and by the 1860s, he was one of the richest men in Ottawa.
Interested in politics, he served on the City Council in the 1860s and in 1863 was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.
The home was completed in 1868, and Joseph named it Gorffwysfa, Welsh for “place of rest”.
The 35 room home had a basement, many staircases, and an elevator over four floors overlooking Governor Bay on 1.6 hectares of land on the banks of the Ottawa River.
To celebrate the completion of 24 Sussex the couple threw a party for 500 guests, which included Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and his wife Lady Macdonald.
In 1870, a ballroom was added to entertain Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s son, during his visit to Ottawa.
Joseph was able to enjoy the home for a few years, until he passed away in 1884.
His wife Hannah enjoyed it for much longer.
She lived until 1901 and upon her death the home was sold for $30,000, or about $1 million today, to William Edwards, a former Member of Parliament who owned several saw mills in the area.
When William died in 1921, his nephew, also a Member of Parliament, Gordon Edwards, took over the house.
Gordon lived in the home until 1943 when the federal government looked to consolidate ownership of Crown lands along the Ottawa River and told him to vacate. because they feared the commercialization of the shoreline.
To prevent that, the federal government had already taken over almost all other properties, from the French Embassy to Earnscliffe, the former home of Sir John A. MacDonald. Gordon refused to leave the home.
The Canadian government offered him $125,000, he demanded $251,000.
The matter went to the courts and eventually the price of $147,000 was settled on but Gordon continued to live in the home, on a month-to-month basis, until he died three years later in 1946.
That’s when the home briefly became the headquarters of the Australian High Commission but then a few years later it was given a new role, one that made it one of the most famous addresses in Canada.
Since 1867, Canadian Prime Ministers have lived in various locations across Ottawa.
For the most part, prime ministers were simply expected to find their own accommodations.
There was The Farm, where Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King lived beginning in 1927.
He turned it into a year-round country retreat in 1935 with modern heating and plumbing.
The Chateau Laurier, the grand, upscale hotel made up of limestone and overlooking the Rideau Canal, located less than a kilometer from Parliament Hill, was used as the home of R.B. Bennett, prime minister from 1930 to 1935.
Through the years various others, such as Laurier House located in the Sandy Hill neighborhood, were used as the homes of the Prime Minister prior to 1951.
In fact, Laurier House was home to two of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers: Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King which meant that for over fifty years, the Second Empire mansion in downtown Ottawa was at the heart of Canadian political life.
When King died, the Cabinet briefly considered making it the permanent official residence of the prime minister.
However, the government turned its sights on the newly acquired 24 Sussex Drive and in 1948, the Toronto architectural firm Allward & Gouinlock were hired to renovate the building.
A total of $500,000 or about $6.3 million today, was spent in renovations.
As Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent prepared to move into the new residence, there was criticism by some in the public over the cost of improving the home.
The Conservative opposition at the time were not happy and Rodney Adamson, a Progressive Conservative MP from York West stated it would have been cheaper to simply build a new residence.
In preparations to make 24 Sussex into an official residence, the following features of the home were removed, the turret, widow’s walk, main gable at the front of the house the verandahs bay windows, wood paneling, several fireplaces and the elaborate wooden trim. The interior was essentially gutted except for part of the dining room to allow for an extension to the east side of the building.
Once completed, the home had the following features: support rooms in the basement and the layout on the main floor included a dining room, living room, kitchen, and prime minister’s library.
On the second floor, the primary bedroom, family room and the office of the spouse of the prime minister were located.
On the third floor, there were additional bedrooms and a private study for the prime minister.
Then Prime Minister St. Laurent’s office made a point of stating that establishing an official residence was not his idea, nor did he suggest or promote the idea.
He also insisted that he pay $5,000 per year in rent to live there.
That amounts to about $5,000 per month today.
When Louis St. Laurent and his wife Jeanne finally moved into 24 Sussex, they brought nothing with them. Jeanne stated,
“Everything’s arranged. It is like moving into a hotel.”
Most of the furnishings were provided from the Crown Collection for use in the public rooms. Everything from musical instruments and chairs to paintings became part of the residence.
Visitors would find many vases filled with purple irises, roses on the piano and a plaque over the doorway that said, “God Bless Our Home.”
At the time, Christina Newman, a journalist with Macleans and The Globe and Mail, wrote of the home quote “it had eclectic blandness, much like a shop window at Eaton’s College Street.”
Upon taking residence the Prime Minister and his wife held a housewarming party and St. Laurent began to pay $5,000 rent on his annual salary of $15,000.
The practice of paying rent lasted until 1971.
Despite their official residence being in Ottawa, both Louis and Jeanne still considered themselves to be Quebec residents.
“I still want to die in our home in Quebec City.”
And her wish came true because in 1966 she died in Quebec City, as did Louis in 1973.
But this is a story about the official residence of the Prime Minister and so… in 1953, two years after the couple moved in, the address changed from 24 Sussex Street to 24 Sussex Drive.
Jeanne and Louis lived in 24 Sussex Drive until 1957 when John Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives won the federal election.
When Diefenbaker moved in with his wife Olive, he wrote to his brother calling his new home a fairy place.
And to make it their own the couple closed the fireplaces to prevent cold winter drafts from entering the building, painted the dining room, changing it from red to blue, and a stuffed moose head was added to one of the interior walls.
Because the threat of nuclear war was all too real for that time a fallout shelter was built
In 1961, Diefenbaker said,
“It was suggested to me that we should have a shelter there, a shelter really protective to the ‘nth’ degree. That is where I shall be when and if war should come.”
Diefenbaker and six of his cabinet ministers even ran nuclear attack simulations at the home to see if they could get to the fallout shelter in time.
When Lester B. Pearson became prime minister in 1963, he and his wife Maryon made further changes.
They decorated the home with furnishings from across the country and added paintings from the National Gallery.
The back patio was given an enclosure so it could be used longer and in cooler months r. Maryon created the Canadiana Room in the basement where she collected Canadian antiques.
Despite her changes, she felt that the home needed further renovations as it was starting to show its age and said it would be more practical to tear it down and begin again.
The arrival of Pierre Trudeau at the residence in 1968 brought more changes to the home.
The so-called Canadiana Room was gone, and he turned into a place where musicians could play, complete with a lighting system.
“Why should it be a shabby place? It shouldn’t be – it’s the showplace of Canada and to leaders abroad.”
Much like Maryon before her Margaret Trudeau wasn’t enamored with the building either. She said it was the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system, and that it felt like living in a prison.
In 1975, a pool was built.
Reportedly costing $275,000, the funds were raised by Keith Davey, the national campaign director for the Liberal Party and donors for the project were never made public.
That caused a great deal of debate, but Trudeau called it a necessity in the hot Ottawa summers.
The pool may have been controversial, but it soon became a favourite feature for prime ministers and their families.
Despite that rather costly addition to the property, Trudeau was famously frugal when it came to renovating 24 Sussex.
In 1982, when Queen Elizabeth II came to Canada for the repatriation of the Constitution, Buckingham Palace told the Canadian government, the monarch needed her own room and private bathroom at 24 Sussex.
She was given the upstairs library, which had its own bathroom.
That room had some very ugly wallpaper, and it was suggested it be changed for the Queen and Trudeau refused to make the relatively low-cost change. This is also when current prime minister Justin Trudeau first lived in the home along with his two brothers.
Justin described the top floor as rarely used, filled with musty old guest rooms, they moved out in 1979, and those rooms were later converted into proper bedrooms during Brian Mulroney’s tenure as prime minister from 1984–1993.
But before that happened Joe Clark and his family arrived in the home in 1979, [CLARKS MOVING IN CLIP 54 SECONDS]
They didn’t have much time at 24 Sussex, in fact they only lasted a year and their contribution to home was gold leafing to the dining room ceiling which was repurposed from another project.
That’s because in 1980, Pierre Trudeau and his family moved back into the home for another four years after the Liberal election win followed by another short residency by Prime Minister John Turner who lived at 24 Sussex during the summer of 1984.
At that time, he asked what needed to be done to renovate the home and was told it would cost $600,000 to modernize it.
When Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister in September 1984, he authorized $100,000 for renovations.
He was the first prime minister to make the costs of renovations public and it quickly caused controversy since the costs were paid by the PC Canada Fund, which raised money from donations to fund the Progressive Conservative Party.
This would be one of the last major renovations to 24 Sussex because from this point on, renovations became a political hot potato, and opposition parties could use them to attack any prime minister who supported them.
On July 28, 1986, 24 Sussex became a Classified Federal Heritage Building –the highest category in the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office.
On June 13, 1993, Mulroney resigned, and Kim Campbell came into power.
She not only became Canada’s first female prime minister she also has the distinction of being the first prime minister since 1951 not to live at 24 Sussex.
Instead, she lived at Harrington Lake, the summer residence of the prime minister because Brian Mulroney hadn’t moved out of 24 Sussex, and she lost the subsequent election only 132 days later.
Aside from renovation scandals, one incident stands out among all others and that happened while Jean Chretien was Prime Minister
From 1993–2003 Jean Chretien lived at 24 Sussex and arguably the most famous incident at the home took place two years into his residency.
On Nov. 5, 1995, six days after the Quebec referendum which sought an independent Quebec was won by Chretien’s Liberal party, a man named Andre Dallaire broke into 24 Sussex Drive.
Just after 2am the man arrived outside of the Prime Minister’s home and spent 20 minutes throwing stones on the grounds and waving at security cameras while carrying a pocketknife.
He then climbed the fence and walked over to the house where he smashed a glass door and entered. He wandered around the basement and ground floor for about 30 minutes.
He then headed towards the Chrétiens’ bedroom and that’s where he was confronted by Aline Chretien as he was putting on gloves.
A frightened Aline ran back to the bedroom, locked the door and woke her husband Prime Minister Jean Chretien who didn’t believe her and told her she just had a dream.
She then dialed the RCMP who were outside the house.
One of the most well-known parts of the story involves either Jean or Aline holding an Inuit stone sculpture of a loon in defense in case Dallaire broke through the door.
Which Dallaire didn’t attempt, instead he waited outside the bedroom door for seven minutes. That’s how long it took RCMP members to arrive after Aline called, because the first officer had forgotten his key to the residence.
The man was subsequently arrested.
Dallaire claimed that he heard voices that led him to break into 24 Sussex Drive. At trial, Justice Paul Bélanger agreed with Dallaire’s earlier diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and found Dallaire guilty of attempted murder, but not criminally responsible.
The man believed he was a secret agent who was avenging the loss in the referendum and if he killed Chretien, he would be a hero.
The trial also brought to light the security camera footage of Dallaire freely roaming the property, while RCMP officers were asleep at their desk instead of monitoring the cameras.
After an investigation, four officers were suspended for several months, while three supervisors were reassigned.
Dallaire meanwhile entered treatment and in 1998 he apologized for his behaviour, ensuring Canadians that he was now on medication, and he hoped that the Chretiens would forgive his actions.
Chrétien announced that he would step down as Prime Minister in the spring of 2004 and The Liberal party called a leadership convention for the fall of 2003, to be held in Toronto.
On September 21, 2003, Paul Martin easily defeated his sole remaining opponent, former Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, yes… the same person who suggested today’s story!
Paul Martin was then prime minister from 2003 to 2006.
During this time comedian, television personality, political satirist, and author Rick Mercer filmed a spot for the Rick Mercer Report.
In the segment, Mercer tours 24 Sussex and points out all of the many disrepairs, from spots on the carpet to drafty windows and in fact as part of the shoot Mercer helps Martin put shrink wrap over the back patio to keep out winter winds.
That’s because legend has it that during his first night as prime minister, the furnace failed and Paul and his wife, Sheila Martin, had to keep warm by wearing sweaters and vests through the night.
In 2006 Stephen Harper won the election and moved into 24 Sussex.
He resided there until 2015, and actively resisted any repairs to the building beyond some painting and patching. He agreed to replace rotting kitchen pipes, and fixed or bought appliances oh and he finally replaced carpets… there’s no way of knowing if they’re the ones Mercer mocked a few years earlier.
All those items cost less than $15,000 total.
The National Capital Commission requested renovations in 2008 and 2011 but this were turned down by Harper.
On May 6, 2008, the Auditor General reported that the house was in poor condition and needed about $10 million in repairs and upgrades, which would require at least 12 to 15 months of “full access” to complete.
To date, Harper is the last prime minister to live at 24 Sussex Drive.
In October 2015, Bryan Baeumler estimated $15 million might be necessary to properly renovate the residence and The NCC devised a plan for major renovations which would require approximately 18 months.
On November 4, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took over as Prime Minister but doesn’t live in 24 Sussex, instead he lives at Rideau Cottage, a two-level, 22-room Georgian Revival home traditionally inhabited by people associated with the governor general of Canada.
Unlike 10 Downey Street and the White House, 24 Sussex was not designed to have an executive function.
Instead, it was meant as a residence for Prime Ministers and their families, and a place to hold social functions.
There has rarely been a televised look inside the residence beyond one by Olive Diefenbaker in the 1950s and another by Maureen McTeer when her husband Joe Clark was prime minister from 1979 to 1980. This lack of access to the home created a disconnect between Canadians and 24 Sussex.
Rick Mercer had three televised visits, including a sleepover in 2006 when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister.
Mercer has been a vocal critic of the fact the home has fallen into disrepair. He stated it defied logic and added,
“There is not a single homeowner in this country who does not understand that if you have a hole in your roof, you have one priority in your life and that is to get that hole patched. There is no scenario where you leave that hole, because water will destroy your entire home.”
Mercer hoped to spark outrage after he heard that the building was in a state of disrepair. He called it ridiculous and short-sighted to refuse repairs He said,
“You’re basically throwing up your hands and saying Canadians aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that the roof getting fixed is not money going into my personal pocket.”
The home has been described as drafty and leaky. It was not uncommon to see pots and pans on the floor to catch water dribbling from the ceiling during a rainy day. Other issues include the wiring that is a fire hazard, mould in the basement, and asbestos in the walls. The rooms have been described as freezing in the winter and very hot in the summer since there is no central air conditioning.
Despite the Official Residences Act, which obligates the government to fully fund maintenance at four per cent replacement value annually.
This has actually never happened, and the property has not seen a significant investment in 60 years.
So, what is to happen with this historic building?
Since 2001, very little has been spent on the upkeep of 24 Sussex. As that was 22 years ago, the building has become worn and outdated.
In 2021, a report stated renovations, including a 370-square-foot expansion of the main building to improve access, would cost $36.6 million.
In May 2023, work began to remove asbestos from the property and remove the electrical, heating, and mechanical systems as they were deemed fire hazards.
Today, the former home of the prime minister is infested with rodents. The walls, attics and basements are filled with rodent carcasses and excrement.
Will a prime minister ever live there again?
It is hard to say.
There have been calls to demolish it and rebuild, while others want it designated as a federal heritage building.
What do I think should be done?
Personally, I think it should be saved, even if a prime minister never lives there again.
Maybe, I’m biased. I am all about preserving Canadian history after all.
It is part of history, and the saying goes, if these walls could talk. What would the walls at 24 Sussex say? It has been witness to presidents, prime ministers, and royalty.
It is a part of our heritage, and a prime minister will never live there again, then at least turn it into a museum… so that Canadians can always have a home to go to where they can connect to their political past.
Information from Canada’s History, Canadian Encyclopedia, Regina Leader-Post, Wikipedia, Sault Star, Globe and Mail, National Capital Commission, National Post, Parks Canada, Canadian Architect, The Washington Post, Macleans,