How Salada Tea built Canada House

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

Canada House, situated on the west side of Trafalgar Square, is one of London’s most prestigious addresses. It will be renovated with the proceeds from the sale of Macdonald House. The latter houses offices and also the residence of the high commissioner.

For the first 50 years or so, Canada conducted its diplomatic, consular and trade affairs in London from a variety of rented addresses ranging from the Strand to Charing Cross Road. In the 1920s, however, prime minister Mackenzie King launched a plan to consolidate all such functions under one roof, and sent High Commissioner Peter Larkin to carry out the task. Larkin, nearly 70, had made himself stupendously rich as the founder of the Salada Tea Company and had given financial support not only to the Liberal Party, but to Mackenzie King personally.
His pockets stuffed with money, Larkin engineered the purchase of a century-old building in Trafalgar Square whose architect had also designed the British Museum. Before the structure became Canada House, one part of it was being used as a private gentlemen’s club, whose early members had included the Duke of Wellington. (The remaining portion, which served as the home of the Royal College of Physicians, was acquired much later in a separate transaction.) Restored, reconfigured and polished for the official opening by King George V and Queen Mary in 1925, Canada House was a showplace as well as a workplace.

Prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King called Canada House, shown under the protection of Mounties here, “the finest site in London and, being in London, the finest in the world.”

Using his own funds, Larkin furnished the building top to bottom to the great benefit of high-end antique and art dealers in Bond Street. One bit of furniture was a cabinet with many drawers and, on its top, an elaborate mosaic of the type known as pieta dura, dating from the Renaissance. The piece seemed to have disappeared when High Commissioner Roy MacLaren, the author of Commissions High: Canada in London, 1870-1971 and other historical works, arrived to take up his duties 17 years ago. He finally tracked it down to the bedroom of the naval attaché’s teenage son, who had been using it for his socks and underwear. Gentle cleaning by conservators from the Victoria and Albert Museum revealed that the cabinet was once owned by a member of the Medici family. It is valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars and is now in safe storage.
The dynamic of Canada House changed when the government once again required more space and found an additional (not a replacement) home in Grosvenor Square. For years, the phrase “Grosvenor Square” has been a metonym for the U.S. Embassy there, in the same way that “Bay Street,” for instance, is a metonym for the Toronto Stock Exchange. From 1938 to 1940, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was the first American ambassador to reside there (accompanied some of the time by his son Jack, the future U.S. president). During the Second World War, when Vincent Massey occupied the enormous High Commissioner’s Room at Canada House — a room that Charles Ritchie (who served from 1967-71) once compared to Benito Mussolini’s office — Grosvenor Square acquired even more of an American presence. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters were there; so was the U.S. Navy’s European operations centre.

High Commissioner Gordon Campbell and his wife, Nancy, stand with Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife, Sharon, in front of a portrait by Paul Glen, given to the Queen on her diamond jubilee in 2012.

In 1960, the United States built a far larger and more demonstrative embassy on the other side of the square, recognizable at a great distance because of its gilded aluminum eagle with a wingspan of more than 11 metres, not to mention the nearby statue of president Ronald Reagan. Because of growing security concerns, the U.S. announced in 2008 that it will be abandoning Grosvenor Square altogether and constructing a new, even more heavily defended embassy on the South Bank of the Thames.
When the Americans moved to the embassy that’s still in use now, Canada bought the previous property, designated Nos. 1 to 3 Grosvenor Square. It was virtually gutted and, in 1961, christened Macdonald House, in honour of Sir John A.

Canada House has been renovated and restored to its present “dignified opulence, with its grand staircase, enormous crystal chandeliers and all the rest.”

Part of it is the official residence of the high commissioner and isn’t seen by the public. The rest of it, behind the graceful 1930s faux-Georgian façade, is much like any other federal government office, with telephones ringing and people going swiftly from room to room and floor to floor, carrying armsful of documents. Presumably, the activity must be at least a little less frantic than it was in 2010-2012. That’s when, post-Vancouver Olympics, the consular and notarial duties carried out at Canada House were moved temporarily to Macdonald House so that the Trafalgar Square property — which Mackenzie King called “the finest site in London, and being in London, the finest in the world”— was renovated and restored to its present dignified opulence, with its grand staircase (it really is grand), enormous crystal chandeliers and all the rest.
The latest twist in the story of Canada’s London real estate became public during Question Period on Feb. 8 this year. John Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced that Macdonald House (worth an estimated $500 million) will be sold and the proceeds used to renovate Canada House and to buy an adjacent building for about $100 million to create office space for the high commission’s staff. So, once again, all Canada’s business will be consolidated, neatly and permanently, in one location. The timetable for the move isn’t yet clear. The newly added property, built in 1929, was originally the office of Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada. Later, during the Second World War, it was Canadian army headquarters in London.
At the moment, Canada House and Macdonald House combined employ approximately 250 people, both Canadian and British citizens. The latest realignment, when it comes, probably won’t change that figure.

– GF

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