History of 24 Sussex

Place of peace

Canada in the early 19th century was a magnet for young, ambitious immigrants. One of these was young Joseph Merrill Currier from Vermont. He came north in 1837 at the young age of 17, and stayed to make a fortune in the lumber trade. In 1853, he brought his young family to the village of New Edinburgh on the Rideau River, where he rented a lumber mill at the Rideau Falls. By 1855, Joseph and Christina Currier had four children and were thriving as part of the business elite of Ottawa. Then tragedy struck. That year, three of the children died, followed (an inconsolable three years later) by their mother. In the next few years, Currier tried his hand at politics — provincial and national — and he married again. His young wife died in an industrial accident within two months of the wedding. In 1868, he took a third wife, Hannah Wright, the granddaughter of pioneers. Joseph built a house as a wedding gift to his wife, setting it near the forests and water that had made his fortune. As an omen that his personal sufferings were at an end, he called the house "Gorffwysfa," which means "place of peace" in Welsh.

24 Sussex Drive

24 Sussex Drive gatehouse and residence

Social life

Hannah and Joseph Currier moved into their new house in 1868 and almost immediately held a reception for 500 people, including virtually all of elite society in young Ottawa, including Sir John A. and Lady Macdonald. Two years later, they held a ball in honour of young Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, and later Duke of Connaught and Governor General of Canada. And so it continued until Currier resigned from politics in 1882. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, two years later, leaving his widow to live out her life at Gorffwysfa.

24 Sussex Drive

View of building when used as the Australian High Commission, 1947.

Politics and business

After the death of Hannah Currier in 1901, the house passed into the hands of William Cameron Edwards, member of another prominent lumbering family. Like the first owner, Edwards was both a successful businessman and a prominent politician. From 1893 on, his company owned all the mills east of the Rideau Falls, and he turned them into an important wood manufacturing complex. Edwards also served as a member of Parliament from 1891 to 1900, after which he was appointed senator. His wife, Catherine Wilson, also came from a distinguished political family. Her brother was a member of Parliament for Russell, and her sister-in-law, Cairine Wilson, became Canada’s first woman senator in 1930. When Edwards died in 1921, the house eventually passed to a nephew, Gordon Edwards.

Continuity

Gordon Edwards became a member of Parliament for Ottawa in 1926, coincidentally holding the same seat that Joseph Currier had held in his time. And he married a woman with a political pedigree of her own — Edna Stewart Meighen (cousin of Prime Minister Arthur Meighen). The Edwards lived a life of considerable elegance and refinement, and they brought one of North America’s most extensive collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to the house.

Expropriation

The battle to bring 24 Sussex into public hands was long and hard-fought. By 1943, the federal government owned almost all the land stretching along the Ottawa River from the French Embassy to Earnscliffe (former home of Sir John A. Macdonald). There were fears at the time that the shoreline would be "commercialized," which the government wanted to prevent at all costs. In 1943, an eviction notice was served on Gordon Edwards, who spent the last few years of his life fighting the order. The government won the dispute but, even after the courts settled the matter in 1946, it seemed uncertain what to do with the house. In 1950, a decision was finally taken to refurbish the property as a residence for the Prime Minister. This was the era of rampant "modernism" and, during the renovations, many Victorian features of the house (inside and out) were removed, including bay windows, wood panelling, several fine fireplaces and elaborate wooden trim.

Official life

The last thing Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent wanted in 1950 was an official residence. His family lived in Québec City and he, while in Ottawa, enjoyed bachelor quarters in the Roxborough Apartments (a downtown home to many politicians in its day). St. Laurent finally consented to move in, however, as long as he could continue to pay rent (a practice that continued until 1971). Since then, the house has been occupied by a succession of government leaders, including John Dienfenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and all their successors. The list of visitors is even more glittering: people such as Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and John and Jacqueline Kennedy, to name a few.

24 Sussex Drive

Anthony Eden, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, and C.D. Howe outside 24 Sussex, January, 1952

Credit: Canapress 280519

24 Sussex Drive

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Mrs. Diefenbaker and President J.F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy, at 24 Sussex on May 17, 1961.

Credit: National Film Board, Library and Archives Canada, 98442

Today

The house has changed relatively little since 1950, except for the addition of a windowed sunroom at the back, modernization of the kitchen, and the addition of an enclosed pool and sauna. Since 1986, 24 Sussex Drive has been managed by the National Capital Commission, which is now planning a long-term rehabilitation project to ensure that this valuable old heritage building remains in optimal condition. The work will continue in years to come.

Timeline

1868 Joseph Currier builds a house overlooking the Ottawa River and calls it "Gorffwysfa" (place of peace).
1884 Joseph Currier dies suddenly.
1901 Hannah Currier dies, and W.C. Edwards buys the house.
1921 W.C. Edwards dies.
1922 Catherine Edwards dies, and her sister, Edith Wilson, who had lived with Catherine for a number of years, continues to occupy the house.
1923 The property passes to a nephew, Gordon Cameron Edwards.
1943 A federal eviction notice is served on Gordon Edwards, who appeals the order in court.
1946 The courts award Edwards $140,000 plus costs for his house. The Edwards’ remain in the house on a month-to-month basis until Gordon Edwards’ death, that very year.
1946-47 The house remains vacant.
1947-50 The house is rented to the Australian High Commission.
1950 The government embarks on urgent rehabilitation and renovation of the property at a cost of some $410,000.
1950 The house is offered as an official residence to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

24 Sussex Drive

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Official Residences (National Capital Commission)

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