Long overdue historical designation going to Diefenbaker house

Tyler Clarke
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The house former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker owned for 30 years still isn’t considered a municipal heritage property.


Enthusiastically sharing tidbits of information during a guided tour of the building on Tuesday, Prince Albert Historical Society summer student Matt Remenda had plenty to share about the building, which has been a public museum since 1983.

Remenda joins other students in sharing a wealth of knowledge about the building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week all summer. The building is closed during the winter.

Although owned by John Diefenbaker from 1947 to 1977, the 13th Prime Minister of Canada only lived in the house for about 10 years.

Thereafter, he relocated with his second wife, Olive (Palmer), to the Ottawa area where he spent his time between 24 Sussex Drive and a home in the Ottawa suburb of Rockliffe.

While at Prince Albert, he’d spend time at the Marlboro Hotel.

Prince Albert Historical Society curator Michelle Taylor notes that Diefenbaker rented his Prince Albert house to various people while he was in Ottawa.

From 1959 to 1967, Daily Herald general manager Herbert Cowan lived in the building, whose colleague, incoming general manager John Denhoff lived in the building from Cowan’s departure to 1970.

After a few more renters, Diefenbaker gifted the building to the city in 1977 for use as a museum in his honour.

It finally opened as a public museum in 1983, with the majority of its furnishings coming from Diefenbaker’s Ottawa area home.

“Even the wood in the fireplace comes from his Ottawa house,” Remenda noted.

Included in its arsenal of furniture are two pieces that were previously owned by John A. Macdonald -- a couch in the living room and the bed Diefenbaker slept on.

The bed is supported by ropes on either side of the mattress that Diefenbaker would have had to tighten each night before he slept -- the origins of “sleep tight,” Remenda notes.

A phone next to the bed served as a direct line to Queen Elizabeth II -- a right Diefenbaker reportedly only evoked once, in order to wish the queen a happy birthday.

Built in 1912, the 1,106-square-foot building isn’t without its own historical merits.

In addition to Diefenbaker living in the building with his first wife, Edna (Brower) and then his second wife, Olive, Diefenbaker himself built the sunroom located on the north side of the property.

The sunroom’s shady north-facing location and its drooping foundation makes a strong case for Diefenbaker as a politician and not a carpenter.

Last year, the city paid to shore up the foundation so it would stop moving down the hill, Taylor said.

Some additional exterior stucco and paintwork is expected to take place this year.

This, Taylor said, is why it’s important that the city grant the building a municipal heritage designation.

Once they have the municipal designation the Prince Albert Historical Society will be able to seek provincial and federal designations.

Although no more major renovations are on the immediate horizon, these designations would open up provincial and federal grants, potentially saving municipal coffers some expense.

Judging from council’s unanimous approval of the municipal heritage designation’s first two readings at Monday’s city council meeting, it’s expected that they will grant the designation next month.

In the works for more than a year, Taylor said that the society’s effort to get the building a municipal heritage designation is almost always met with a puzzled expression and the same question over and over: “Why wasn’t it already?”

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