The British High Commission (BHC) recently announced it has awarded the contract for the construction of a new office building and gatehouse on the grounds of Earnscliffe, the residence of the British High Commissioner at 140 Sussex Drive since 1930. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1960, it is also the home where Sir John A. Macdonald lived and died.
Perched on a steep cliff overlooking the Ottawa River, the picturesque Gothic Revival style stone house (c.1855) with its pitched roofs and dormers and ornate bargeboard is a visible landmark along Sussex Drive and from the Ottawa River and Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. As well as the Official Residence, the property included stables and a coach house building that was converted into office space by the BHC in 1931.
This old office building was without heritage protection and was recently demolished to make way for a new three-storey office building and a new security guardhouse and gate at the entrance. The new office building will replace the High Commission's current chancery, a multi-storey office building located at 80 Elgin Street, a block from Parliament Hill, which will be sold. Purpose built in 1962-63, it housed over 200 employees. The new chancery on the Earnscliffe property will be much smaller, accommodating closer to 60 staff members.
The new building will be a modernist design in an international style clad in honed limestone veneer, bright white ceramic panels, aluminium frames and clear glass and tongue-and-groove panels. It will be set behind a stone wall on Sussex Drive.
HERITAGE OTTAWA'S FEEDBACK
Heritage Ottawa participated in two meetings hosted by the BHC about the proposed new plans for the site along with representatives from the New Edinburgh Community Alliance and the Lowertown Community Association. In November 2019, Heritage Ottawa sent a follow-up letter to the High Commission expressing appreciation for the excellent care the British government has taken over the years to preserve Earnscliffe, but also elaborating on concerns that the new two-storey wing along the Sussex Drive side of the property up to the entrance gate and linking with the guardhouse would create a “visual barrier” to the historic site from the street. Heritage Ottawa encouraged the BHC to share its plans with the public and to commission the preparation of an arm's length independent study of impacts the new development would have on the historic residence and grounds.
IMPACT ON HISTORIC PROPERTY
The resulting Earnscliffe Cultural Heritage Impact Statement, prepared by Robert Martin Architects and ContentWorks, concludes that the demolition of the old office building (former stables and coach house) will have an “adverse impact” on the site in terms of the original lot patterns that were part of Earnscliffe’s history. Its replacement with a larger and taller contemporary building and the redeveloped entrance with guardhouse and stone wall will also impact the view to the site and the Official Residence from Sussex Drive.
The study also concludes that the “historic visual hierarchy” that saw the old office building subservient to the Official Residence will be changed, as the new office building will be much more visible in the landscape and will rival the Official Residence in scale.
The positive heritage impacts identified in the study include the containment of the development almost entirely to the south portion of the property on the Sussex side, leaving most of the original grounds and all of the Official Residence built c.1855 intact.
Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen, “Latest British invasion of Ottawa – on Sussex Drive, PM’s doorstep” | November 19, 2020
Jon Willing, Ottawa Citizen, “Architects go through design gauntlet in planning new British High Commission at Earnscliffe” | January 10, 2020