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Canadian politicians don't care to fix the prime minister's crumbling official home

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden's official home is the White House. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's official residence is 10 Downing Street. But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lives around the corner from his official residence, which sits empty. Reporter Emma Jacobs in Ottawa explains why the prime minister's home is unfit for occupancy.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Twenty-four Sussex Drive is hard to see from this street, set back behind a fence and a row of tall evergreens.

TOON DREESSEN: It feels very Victorian - right? - sort of a little overgrown, a little mysterious.

JACOBS: Ottawa-based architect Toon Dreessen.

DREESSEN: There's almost a little Addams Family to it, you know, wrought iron gate that's a little kind of creepy looking, but it's kind of cool.

JACOBS: The stone mansion was completed in 1868 for a lumber baron and became the prime minister's official residence in 1951.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The nation's new residence for the nation's leader.

JACOBS: But Canada's current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and his family have lived elsewhere, a large but plain red brick house nearby. Trudeau actually grew up in 24 Sussex Drive when his father, Pierre, was prime minister, but now says it's unlivable. Dreessen blames its condition on decades of, quote, "demolition through neglect." By 2005, it was so famously drafty that comedian Rick Mercer took then-Prime Minister Paul Martin to the hardware store to buy insulating window plastic.

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RICK MERCER: It goes on with a hair dryer.

PAUL MARTIN: You're going to show me how?

MERCER: Oh, absolutely.

JACOBS: More recently, a government report called the house's electrical system a fire hazard and its overall condition, quote, "critical." J.D. Stewart, author of the book "Being Prime Minister," says politicians haven't wanted to spend money on 24 Sussex since Trudeau's father was prime minister.

J D STEWART: When Pierre Trudeau builds this pool that ended up costing more than a quarter of a million dollars in 1974 dollars.

JACOBS: Relentless media coverage ever since, he says, has made it difficult to fund even basic upkeep.

STEWART: There's a Canadian sensibility that doesn't like ostentatious displays of wealth, that doesn't like the tall poppy. And so particularly when it comes to politicians, we don't want them getting too comfortable in their perks.

JACOBS: Writer and historian Charlotte Gray has lived a short walk away from 24 Sussex for the past four decades.

CHARLOTTE GRAY: And I at one point used to take my kids trick or treating there.

JACOBS: She says discussions of what to do with the mansion have dragged on so long, some people think the government should just knock it down and start over.

GRAY: It's a really difficult dilemma. You know, do you keep an old lumber baron's house, which, in fact, is in terrible shape but is a heritage building? Or do you create something much more modern and much more startling and much more 21st century?

JACOBS: A new building could include room to host a state dinner - a problem identified since day one. The recent truck convoy protest right outside the prime minister's downtown office also highlighted old concerns about the existing building being too difficult to secure. Some architects, including Toon Dreessen, think a thoughtful renovation or addition could actually solve a lot of these problems and that the most scrutinized home renovation in Canada could also present an opportunity.

DREESSEN: To demonstrate to the world that not only can you take a historical building, you can renovate it, you can restore it, but you can also make it net zero energy and meet all of the security requirements that a complex project like this needs. I think that would be a really amazing statement.

JACOBS: But one that, after decades, Canada is still not ready to make. And 24 Sussex Drive remains vacant. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS OF ORCHIS' "FAT, FURIOUS AND FLUFFY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.