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Old Posted Nov 19, 2020, 12:49 PM
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Latest British invasion of Ottawa — on Sussex Drive, PM's doorstep
The British High Commission reports it is going to sell 80 Elgin St., which it purpose-built in 1962-63.

Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen
Publishing date: Nov 19, 2020 • Last Updated 51 minutes ago • 4 minute read

Some 200 years after Lt.-Col. John By started digging the Rideau Canal, the Brits aren’t done with shaping Ottawa as a capital — only now more quietly.

Though it received little attention, the British High Commission announced earlier this month it had awarded a contract for a new office building on the grounds of Earnscliffe, the Sussex Drive estate that has served, since 1930, as the home of the high commissioner.

Two immediate questions: What does this do to Earnscliffe, the home where Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, lived and died, and what stroke of opportunity arises by vacating 80 Elgin St., one of the capital’s most strategic addresses?

The residence at Earnscliffe, which has magnificent views of the Ottawa River, is a national historic site and it has often been expressed that Canada made a mistake selling it to the U.K. — the kind of guardianship failure only reinforced by our disgraceful treatment of 24 Sussex Dr., just a short walk to the east.

The heritage concern is further underlined by the plan to build the new structure by demolishing an old “office” building at Earnscliffe that began life as stables, probably built and used by Sir John A. himself. First his house, now his horse — so much for our stewardship of Canadiana. (The old building has no heritage protection.)

The plans were shown to Heritage Ottawa about a year ago. President Richard Belliveau said the reaction was generally positive, but he has concerns about the profile of the project along Sussex on a site across from the landmark Global Affairs headquarters.

“For the most part, it’s quite an elegant design and would fit quite well along Sussex,” Belliveau said. “But the question becomes is any of this going to become an attaint to the historic property that is Earnscliffe?”

He’s making reference to something not shown in the pretty pictures released by the High Commission: the substantial steel fence, a heavy gate and a guardhouse through which visitors must be checked — what the passerby will see from the sidewalk.

(This is, after all, the high-profile embassy of the 21st century — near fortresses with offices attached.)

In drawings, the modern design looks like a set of teetered or “cantilevered” boxes, two and three storeys high, about 18,000 square feet in total, set on the Sussex side of the one-acre property, with 26 parking spaces.

While there have been voices over the years urging Canada to reclaim Earnscliffe, Belliveau and others credit the Brits for doing a good job at preserving the Gothic Revival house — they’ve poured millions into it — and questions, in 2020, just what a government agency would do with it.

Look, after all, at the shambles we’ve made of 24 Sussex, the official residence of the prime minister: unoccupied for years, without much of a plan going forward.

The High Commission reports it is going to sell 80 Elgin, which it purpose-built in 1962-63. It is, for one thing, way too big, at 62,000 square feet, large enough to house some 220 employees in 1964, whereas the new building will only have about 60.

The location is prime and the view from the upper floors is magnificent. It sits across from the National Arts Centre and is perched on the edge of Confederation Square and the National War Memorial. The best allies, so is it true on diplomatic row, get the best digs.

Architect and heritage advocate Barry Padolsky is old enough to remember the era when the building went up. He said the National Capital Commission insisted it be set back to create a kind of “city wall” on the upper end of Elgin, with a height that matched important neighbours like the Chambers building, Langevin Block and the Lord Elgin Hotel.

It was all part of the master Gréber plan to create a mini-Champs Élysées, or grand alley that gave way to the memorial square and the parliamentary precinct.

But now what? As Padolsky points out, the federal government — a logical buyer — is likely not in an office-expansion mode and its record in converting high-profile buildings — the old U.S. Embassy on Wellington — is patchy.

(It might have made a nice location for the new main branch of the Ottawa library, but, alas, that ship has sailed.)

Padolsky guesses that a private developer might want to intensify use of the site by building on a backside parking lot. Boutique hotel? High-end condo? Who knows?

“I think it’s a great property and I’m sure that whoever buys it will want to exploit its location, location, location.”

The wait may not be long. The High Commission hopes to move into its new offices in 2022.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email
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