Earnscliffe gets a $2.4-million facelift

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The High Commissioner Andrew Pocock and his wife Julie give a tour and description of the renovation of Earnscliffe. Photo by Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen.

Earnscliffe is a Victorian house set on a commanding position on the rocky escarpment looking across the Ottawa River to the Gatineau Hills. Today, the view from Sir John A Macdonald’s house includes the rusting arches of the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge.

Canada’s first prime minister bought the house and two-acre site in 1883 for $10,040. Before long, renovations and extensions were in full swing. “The house wants painting and papering too which I am greatly dreading,” Lady Agnes Macdonald wrote to her sister-in-law. She complained about her “very shabby chairs” and another time remarked that there weren’t enough rooms for her brother, Colonel Bernard, to live at Earnscliffe.

“In the meantime, I am trying to make the outside look pretty,” she wrote. “I had 16 to lunch on Thursday and we have 20 to dine today.”

Built in 1857 as a family house, Earnscliffe took on the dual role of official residence under Macdonald, who lived, worked and entertained here as prime minister. That representational role — part private, part public — continues. Since 1930, Earnscliffe has served as the official residence for high commissioners for the United Kingdom in Canada.

Like Macdonald, whose remodelling in 1888 cost him $7,000, the British government is investing in the property. A $2.4-million renovation is underway, mostly on the exterior of the 155-year-old structure.

The four-and-a-half-month project, to be completed at end of year, will repair cracked woodwork, replace leaky windows, rebuild a crumbling porch and replace the entrance portico. Decorative wood carving on the house and lintels above windows will be refinished; long-lost finials on the roof will be replaced.

“We think that Earnscliffe is a hugely important place,” High Commissioner Andrew Pocock said during a tour last week. “Our ambition is that it returns to its high Victorian splendour.”

From a heritage perspective, the 5,100-square-foot house is fortunate to retain much original detail and organization both inside and out. Carved Gothic-inspired wood ornament frames the steep-pitched roof gables. The wood tracery, window frames and porches are painted white in gentle contrast with the soft grey of Ottawa limestone walls. The roof is slate.

The large dining room built by Macdonald is still in place, as is the special stair landing that he made for a young disabled daughter to observe the glittering goings on. The rooms of the house are sized to a family, not an official residence. High ceilings and tall windows provide a feeling of spaciousness.

“The views are lovely and it’s comfortable,” says Julie Pocock, wife of the high commissioner. “It’s a warm house.”

Norman Reddaway, who served on the staff of the high commission in the 1950s, wrote a history of Earnscliffe. In it, he notes that the house had once briefly been a military hospital and that a previous owner had been a railway executive.

“Now Sir John was running a substantial part of the nation’s business from his private study,” Reddaway wrote. “Sir John was able to do a morning’s work at Earnscliffe in relative peace until he lunched at noon. After lunch Sir John would go by cab or on foot to the parliament buildings.

“All records and memories point to a very happy domestic life at Earnscliffe which, though grown from a modest villa into an official residence, managed to retain its pleasant family atmosphere.”

In peeling back history, the goal of the renovation is to renew what is there rather than reconstruct the past.

For example, the portico, though not original to the house, will be replaced. “It lends a kind of delight to the entrance,” says project architect David McRobie. “It’s one thing people really remember. They approach the house and they pass under it. We’re entirely replicating what was there.”

There is a return to traditional materials, he says. Aluminum storm windows from the 1960s on the sun porch will be replaced with wood windows, and copper will be used for flashing and gutters.

“The house has grown in its utility and its charm,” says McRobie. “We want to really enhance that. We’ll make structural improvements while we’re improving the building envelope.”

Pocock is delighted to see the removal of two “absolutely hideous” black wrought-iron fire escapes from the north side of the house, made possible by a new fire evacuation system.

The work is not related to a fire at the house last year that caused minimal damage and no injuries. “It’s a combination of an old house in a pretty unforgiving climate,” said Pocock. “The stonework is still in excellent condition. What suffered is the woodwork. This window here, for example, it’s sort of eaten right through.”

Perched high above the river with a northwest exposure, the house gets soaked by rain and battered by wind. “The rain comes horizontally against the house,” he says. “It’s just smashing in.”

Macdonald named the house — earn is an old English word for eagle — and died in one of the seven bedrooms in 1891. Can his presence be felt? “We’re diplomats, not ghostbusters.” replies Pocock.

Looking ahead, the house is “ready for another 150 years I think.”

By Maria Cook, The Ottawa Citizen

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