Sunday, December 01, 2013

"24 Sussex paging Mike Holmes! 24 Sussex paging Mike Holmes!"

"Mike, we need you to get dressed to the nines and attend 24 Sussex Drive. Fix those shifting, leaky toilets or tear the bloody place down! Oh, and while there keep an eye open for more of those missing senate scandal documents!"

Inaide 24 Sussex
Elizabeth Payne
Friday, November 29, 2013

24 Sussex Drive as it appeared after being renovated in 1950-51 to become the Prime Minister's residence. The building was dramatically altered and the part on the right (east side) added.

There is mould in the basement, and maybe other parts of the house. Water pours through the ceiling at times, and at least once a bucket had to be shoved underneath to catch it until the source could be found and repairs made. Taps drip and won’t turn off, pipes leak, electric breakers inexplicably trip off, knocking out power in part of the house, including one time two years ago when it was full of guests for Canada Day.

Disturbingly, one toilet moves when sat on and others sometimes leak. Bathrooms cry out for repair and some just aren’t used. When work is done, rotten wood is often revealed underneath. And the issues with heat — usually the lack of it — are relentless.

The drip drip of minor and major problems in need of attention at 24 Sussex Drive — revealed in 185 pages of emails obtained by the Citizen — tell the tale of a 146-year-old house being patched together, at least metaphorically, with duct tape. Call it make-do manor.

The emails offer a rare back stairs glimpse inside a politically charged piece of limestone-clad history that few Canadians have ever seen, aside from a view from the street or maybe the front drive on Halloween.

Inside is a house desperately in need of upgrading and renovations, and one that its current residents are equally desperate not to be seen squandering taxpayers’ dollars on. It has been called “close to unliveable.”

Some are even calling for it to be torn down.

But, while a political standoff over renovations continues, life goes on at 24 Sussex, which means a constant stream of repairs. Some of the work is simply routine maintenance on an old home, but other problems are chronic and signal the relentless work of trying to repair infrastructure that ought to be replaced. Frustration can sometimes be read into the exchanges among those in charge of that work.

* “ ... it is not normal to have this many tripped breakers everywhere without good reason,” France Tremblay, Project Manager of special projects for official residences with the National Capital Commission, complained in a July 7, 2011 email to House Manager Roger Charbonneau. Tremblay said the electrical problem caused power outages “when the house was full of guests.”

* “Yesterday the guys painted the room ceiling and today watermarks were already reappearing,” wrote Tremblay to Marc Dostaler, Property Manager of official residences with the NCC, in 2011.

* “I’ve had it with band-aids!” wrote Dostaler in an exchange from April of this year about a plumbing issue in the house’s servery.

That sentiment likely sums up the feelings of many involved in helping to keep 24 Sussex operating long since it was declared in urgent need of renovations to the plumbing, air conditioning, windows and electrical system, among other things.

Since 1986, the house has been managed by the National Capital Commission, which is in charge of all official residences. Finished in 1868, the home was a gift from lumber baron and MP Joseph Merrill Currier to his third wife, after the deaths of his first two wives and three children. As an omen, he named it Gorffwysfa, Welsh for “place of peace.”

It did not become the official residence of Canadian prime ministers until 1951, although John A. Macdonald attended a party there soon after it was built. Today, 24 Sussex it is one of the most visible symbols of power in Canada and increasingly one of the hottest political footballs. With a federal election looming in 2015 and the Conservative government aiming to slay the deficit before then, there appears to be a heightened concern about spending money on official residences, including 24 Sussex.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, planned work at the Prime Minister’s summer residence on Harrington Lake in Gatineau Park and other official residences was postponed without explanation, according to the NCC. And $6.6 million of capital funding that had been earmarked to be spent on the official residences lapsed and was returned to the government’s consolidated revenue fund with but a brief mention in the NCC annual report.

Spending money on 24 Sussex has always been sensitive — both Pierre Trudeau, who infamously had a pool and tunnel installed, and Brian Mulroney had work done on the house, partly paid for by donors. Some routine maintenance and upgrading has been done in the years since, but many of the biggest projects have been left untouched, leaving the house drafty and leaky, with dodgy wiring and air conditioning units in many windows.

Among the most vocal about the trouble with 24 Sussex is former resident Maureen McTeer who argues that the 34-room home is beyond repair, cannot be made adequately secure and that Canada can do better for its Prime Minister and family. “You would bloody well freeze to death in that house,” McTeer has said, something other wives of former Prime Ministers have seconded.

After the U.S. company Movoto Real Estate this week created a fictional property listing for 24 Sussex, valuing the 12,000-square-foot home at $7.5 million, luxury real estate broker Marilyn Wilson said it is actually a “negative asset,” meaning the property, with a stunning view of the Ottawa River, would be worth more without the house than with it.

Some are outraged that the historic residence is being allowed to crumble. Historian and author Charlotte Gray, who says official residences should never become collateral damage in a partisan debate, is among them.

“Both 24 Sussex Drive and Stornoway (and Rideau Hall and Rideau Gate) are historic homes that require regular maintenance, particularly because of their age, and we should not stint at conserving our built heritage. Regardless of the occupants, we should be caring for these buildings.”

Gray adds that Canadians who go into public office, and work hard to attain high office, are not well-paid by the standards of other nations, and deserve to have decent places to live. “It annoys me when a party leader brags about saving tax dollars by skimping on maintenance: He is making cheap political points at the expense of our common heritage.”

Longtime Ottawa funeral home operator Brian McGarry, who has spent time at 24 Sussex watching hockey games with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the second-floor family room, among other things, cautions against exaggerating the state of the home.

“I would agree it needs a lot of help, but it is not falling down,” he said. “I would not want to overstate that it is a mess. It is not. The water taps don’t spray at you or anything like that.”

Still, McGarry concedes the house needs work and it should be done.

“I think Canadians would be proud to see the building brought back to a place where you could have heads of state or other dignitaries in it. I can’t imagine Canadians objecting to a major overhaul.”

Six years after former auditor general Sheila Fraser raised alarm bells about the condition of 24 Sussex, saying it needed $10 million in urgent repairs that would require the Prime Minister and his family to move out for two years, only those in charge of property maintenance, the staff and its current residents really know how bad things have become.

Work deemed urgent for health and safety reasons that has been completed in recent years includes the removal of mould in a basement bathroom. “Will probably require toilet room demolition,” reads a March 28, 2012 email from Charbonneau to Dostaler. “Note, it will not be rebuilt at this time.”

Mould was also removed from other parts of the basement — and investigated in upper parts of the house.

Asbestos and lead paint were removed from parts of the basement, a storage room and around a window in the master bedroom.

Other repairs in the home’s 13 bath and powder rooms, kitchen, nine bedrooms and other living and family spaces, seem to be mostly done on a fix-when-urgent basis.

The Prime Minister’s Office continues to insist that the house is “adequate” to Harper and his family’s needs and there are no plans to vacate.

One exchange in the trail of emails obtained by the Citizen highlights how sensitive the PMO is to the optics of money being spent on the Prime Minister’s official residences.

Nigel Wright, Harper’s former Chief of Staff, cautioned NCC staff in 2011 that the PMO needs advance notification before any work is carried out on either 24 Sussex or Harrington Lake.

In a September 22, 2011 email, Charbonneau describe work planned for Harrington Lake to Wright. The work included “ ... a new cedar deck near the cabana,” a new sand area for recreation, a flagstone patio, large, flat rocks to provide access to the water and a new floating dock.

“I thought you were made aware of these but after talking to Mrs. Harper she has asked me the question and I had a doubt you were,” wrote Charbonneau. “I assumed wrongly that NCC informed PMO but I thought it wise to send you this just in case that we get into the access to info.”

Two hours later, Wright replied with concern that the PMO hadn’t been given a heads-up about the proposed work. “Ray (Novak) specifically asked two weeks ago for PMO to get advance notice of any work being contemplated at 24 Sussex, because he was told that NCC was planning some work on the escarpment. Nothing was said by NCC at that time about this project but one would think that NCC should have interpreted the requirement to give us advance notification as including both residences.”

A minute later, Novak, who is the Prime Minister’s current Chief of Staff, followed up with an email to Charbonneau saying: “I would approve nothing on your end at this time. PCO committed to return to us with full details and costing before proceeding.”

It is not clear whether the work was ever carried out.

But the series of email exchanges between those in charge of maintenance and work at both residences suggests renovations and repairs at the more private Harrington Lake are also fraught with political concerns about the optics of spending public money.

On December 1 of 2011, Dostaler wrote to Charbonneau that the windows at the main cottage at Harrington Lake would be caulked “as we do every year, to combat cold draughts.”

Earlier that year, in February, Dostaler and Charbonneau had an email exchange about the roof at Harrington Lake. “Looks pretty, but not good property management,” Dostaler wrote, apparently referring to ice hanging from the house’s roof. “I can’t do anything now as the eavestroughs are completely iced in. Next spring, I can perhaps have a look with a contractor.”

Later he wrote: “I will try to put it in next fiscal year’s work schedule to look at the issue with a contractor.

It’s just that other priorities keep cropping up and eating both time and budget.”

In April, just a few weeks before the 2011 federal election, Charbonneau wrote: “I am sure you are overwhelmed with projects. What do you want to do with this one? No rush, just curious.”

Dostaler replied: “I’m meeting (redacted) up there on Friday afternoon to get a quote. After that, I don’t rightly know. Depends on election results, contractor availability, access, budget, time ...”

The property at Harrington Lake, including a 16-room main house, was purchased by the federal government in 1951 and became the official summer residence of the prime minister in the late 1950s. Aside from the main cottage, there is a staff cottage, an upper guest cottage and lower guest cottage on 13 acres of forested land overlooking the lake.

High profile guests to Harrington Lake in recent years have included newlyweds Prince William and Kate Middleton who spent an afternoon there paddling the lake while in Ottawa for Canada Day in 2011. Toronto’s controversial Mayor Rob Ford also visited the residence where he fished with Harper in 2012.

epayne@ottawacitizen.com

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