A major reconstruction project scheduled for a section of Sussex Drive in Lowertown has put the future of several Lowertown houses, including former governor general Adrienne Clarkson’s first Canadian home, in doubt.
The city is planning to widen and add cycling lanes along Sussex, a project that would see National Capital Commission-owned houses at 273, 275, 277 and 279 Sussex Dr. demolished.
One of the houses, located at 277 Sussex Dr., holds small place in Canadian history, as it would become the first home in Canada for a future governor general. Adrienne Clarkson and her family lived there when they first arrived in the country in 1942, when she was three years old.
Her family arrived as refugees, fleeing the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and lived in the home until 1945.
Clarkson vividly recalls the old furnace in the basement and how hard her family worked to fix up the old apartment. It would take more than 50 years for Clarkson to return to the area, taking up residence at Rideau Hall – located at 1 Sussex Dr. – as the 26th governor general of Canada.
“It was full of memories,” Clarkson said of the much more modest home in the working-class neighbourhood of Lowertown. “I have always thought it was quite a miracle that it was still there.”
But that miracle is currently living on borrowed time.
The properties set to be demolished lie within the Lowertown West Heritage Conservation District and will require the NCC to apply to the city under the Ontario Heritage Act to obtain permission to have the buildings torn down.
This application is scheduled to happen in the summer and will be accompanied by a Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment.
According to Ziad Ghadban, an infrastructure services manager for the city, the project would not be able to go ahead as designed without the demolition of the buildings.
“The need is to correct the curvature and alignment of Sussex Drive between the Royal Canadian Mint and Boteler Street in order to include safe and continuous dedicated 1.5-metre cycling lanes in each direction,” Ghadban said. “The dedicated cycling lanes would not be possible without the realignment.”
Members of the Lowertown Community Association, however, aren’t convinced. The group doesn’t want to see Clarkson’s former home or any of the other homes demolished.
In a letter addressed to the National Capital Commission, the city and area politicians, association president Marc Aubin made an appeal for the homes to be saved.
“Taken as a whole, losing another one or two buildings is not going to affect this neighbourhood’s heritage,” Aubin wrote. “However, when one considers how much has already been lost... then the question becomes are we reaching a point where it has become meaningless to call this a heritage district?”
As for the city’s claims the demolitions are necessary to accommodate the cycling lanes, the letter expressed the association’s stance that the need to preserve Lowertown’s heritage should be paramount.
“Cycling is a worthy mode of transportation that is strongly supported by many people in Lowertown; however, there is a serious concern that heritage buildings should not be demolished in the name of this good cause,” Aubin wrote in the letter. “If cycling is the excuse today, another worthy cause might be the excuse tomorrow.”
Instead, the community feels that a more responsible approach would be to reallocate road space, such as remove a lane or use shared car/bike lanes. They have also proposed moving the houses away from the affected area.
As for Clarkson’s old home, Aubin said the history of the building should be celebrated, not ignored.
“How many other governor generals can boast that they went from humble beginnings and ended up in the highest office in the land?” Aubin said.
As for Clarkson’s feelings on her old home, she admits she was saddened to hear it was poised to be demolished.
“Objectively I can’t say ‘I love my house, save it,’ ” Clarkson said. “(But) I would feel better if it was going to be torn down to make room for a hospital or a retirement home, I would have to say that.”
She isn’t, however, unused to seeing homes she grew up in being torn down to make way for urban development.
Clarkson recalled a former home in Toronto being torn down to make way for the Bloor subway line.
“I think I am seeing a pattern of my homes being lost to transportation,” Clarkson said.
Her life has involved community activism – she was involved in the campaign to save the Annex in Toronto from becoming part of a doomed proposal for the Spadina Expressway in the late 1960s and early 1970s – and although she has great memories of living in the Lowertown home, Clarkson said this fight is not hers, but the current residents of the community.
Meanwhile, the residents remain hopeful a compromise can be reached to save the homes. The city is holding an open house at the National Gallery on April 12 at 6 p.m. to provide more information about the project.