The Egyptian embassy residence is a treat for the eye. But it’s tucked away up a lane off Acacia Avenue so it’s a treat that casual passers-by might well miss.
Attractive wrought-iron gates lead up the long driveway to the front entrance of a house built in 1913 by Allan Keefer, the architect for Stornoway and for many residences that are now owned by embassies. This house was for his wife Claire, a local beauty, and their three children. The site is special, on a hill facing east over the Ottawa River and the lovely National Capital Commission’s Rockeries.
His own family house was designed in the same popular Tudor Revival style that the society architect used for other Rockcliffe houses — many of which are now owned by foreign governments.
Not long after his home was complete, prominent Ottawa photographer William de Courcy Topley, who named the house Bonnycrest, lived there from 1919-1953 (according to Rockcliffe Park: A History of the Village by Martha Edmond.)
Following its years as a private home, it was bought by the Egyptian government, which decided in 2006 that it was too small to fulfil its duties as an official residence. So Egypt embarked on a major renovation, almost tripling the size of the original building but with a respectful eye to the heritage values of the home and the area. The $3 million renovation received an infill award from the City of Ottawa.
The first thing that catches your eye is the original double-height bay window in the front. Half-timbered multi-paned windows, a stepped parapet and a recessed entrance sheltered with triple-arched porch show off Keefer’s elegant design.
The original entrance has been enhanced by glassing in the arches, adding a marble floor, sculptures and an Egyptian fountain, along with a small oriental carpet and a table and chairs. This charming entrance leads into the original two-storey wood-panelled entrance hall with a large fireplace and a filigree wooden screen that runs along the second-floor landing.
“It could have been found in a casbah … quite amazing,” says Ambassador Wael Aboul-Magd. “It was really quite a small house.”
Now it’s tripled in size from its original, with a large addition out back. The original small living room gives way to an enormous reception room lined with French doors and full-length windows. Colourful paintings, most from the ambassador’s personal collection, adorn the cream-coloured walls. A combination of five large chandeliers, many pot lights and several skylights give a sense of light and space, even on the darkest days. Sliding doors can be opened or closed to make the large reception room suitable for different occasions. Egyptian furniture is a feature of the room and there is a large silver collection belonging to the family, including the silver bowl in which the ambassador presented the dowry to his fiancée’s father.
“We are a thoroughly modern Egyptian couple,” says his wife, Hanan Mohamed Abdel Kader, “but we enjoy traditional things.” They take the silver bowl everywhere they go, including former postings in New York, New Delhi and Washington.
Behind the reception room is a glassed-in sunroom which looks out over a large patio and garden.
The dining room is an amazing creation in a large extension added to the original space. Lovely new wood panelling has been expertly matched with the original work so it’s almost impossible for the casual eye to spot the difference.
As for bedrooms, Mrs. Magd says, with a laugh, that she not sure how many there are. “I have counted five.”
The house was updated with a commercial-style kitchen and is commanded by Lebanese chef Rafik Girges, who has worked at the residence for 11 years. And while the couple likes to entertain in a modern style, they also enjoy serving favourites from home. If you are lucky enough to be invited for dinner, you might enjoy stuffed grape leaves and peppers, veal and lamb chops with garlic and “lots of mint,” lentil soup and baklava. A house specialty is Turkish coffee and melt-in-your-mouth balah el sham, sweet oriental fritters. Four staff members look after the house, its occupants, and driving duties.
With his country in turmoil, the ambassador is hard at work on the diplomatic front, but at his Ottawa residence he and his wife and young son have an historical and elegant retreat in which to ponder world events.
Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.