The fate of the former U.S. embassy at 100 Wellington St. will definitely be decided this year

More than two months after Public Services and Procurement Canada released an EKOS Research survey of Canadians’ opinions about potential uses of the building, assistant deputy minister Rob Wright said the department is on track to make a decision in 2017.

The building — designated heritage in 1985 — has been vacant since 1998. Former prime minister Jean Chretien wanted it to be used as a national portrait gallery, and his government began renovations for that purpose. But the gallery project was abandoned soon after former prime minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006.

Public Services Minister Judy Foote has revived efforts to convert 100 Wellington for public use after more than 60 years as the American embassy and then 20 years in limbo.

The Beaux-Arts structure by the American architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the iconic U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., was completed in 1932 and is located directly across the street from the Parliament Buildings.

Wright said that before a decision is made by the government about a use for the building, his department felt it was important to survey Canadians. More than 7,000 people participated, he added.

“All interests are to proceed as quickly as possible,” he said. “The thing we’re focused on is getting it right.”

The six proposed uses outlined in the report were:

  • A “Canada House,” intended to provide “a taste of the country’s diversity and achievements and showcasing the best of the provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast.”
  • An information centre to “provide information and orientation services for visitors,” with the help of tourism organizations.
  • A gallery, which Wright said would likely be a portrait gallery and house the Library and Archives Canada collection.
  • An Indigenous cultural centre, with “a use to be determined in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to showcase culture, achievements, and the prominent role of Indigenous people in the history and future of Canada.”
  • An interpretive centre for Parliament, which would provide visitors with information about the works and history of Parliament, and a “space to engage visitors.”
  • A museum, the specific focus of which was not laid out in the report.

The three frontrunners were the ‘Canada House,’ an Indigenous Cultural Centre, and a national portrait gallery, in that order of preference.

Wright said that after the EKOS Research report was made public Dec. 22, the final decision fell to Public Services and Procurement.

Once the department announces its plan for the building, “the next step would be to work with a partner programming department to develop a program, which would then inform a real budget and schedule,” he said. The chosen use will determine the programming department.

Wright said Canada House and the Indigenous Cultural Centre are both “highly conceptual” proposals with little established programming envisioned.

As for the portrait gallery, although it would be a massive job to curate, the artwork is already in the possession of Library and Archives Canada. Madeleine Trudeau, a curator with the exhibitions program, said the collection is the third oldest in the world — started in the 1870s — and is one of the “most fabulous” assemblages of portraiture she’s ever seen, including “items that are exceptionally rare and precious.”

One that stands out for Trudeau is what she called the “rarest and most precious” in the collection, the only portrait ever painted of a living Beothuk Indian, that of Demasduit, painted by Lady Martha Hamilton.

The collection also includes portraits from the Franklin Exhibition by the official artist of the voyage.

Trudeau said the national portrait collection can be visited by anyone, but it is currently housed in a preservation centre in Gatineau, so it is typically viewed by researchers and experts, unless it is on temporary display in an exhibition.

Architect Barry Padolsky said the building has been very well maintained. Architecturally, he said, it’s “essentially been put into cryogenesis.”

Padolsky has worked on the renovations for the Byward Market building and the Canadian Museum of Nature. He said he believes Public Services and Procurement will choose a use that doesn’t involve “dramatic interventions to the interior.”

He added: “I think the only egregious thing is how long it’s taken for a project to finally be completed on this building.”

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Spencer Van Dyk is a Master's of Journalism student at Carleton University.