The Canadian government has been busy with major real estate deals in London, England, selling one of its diplomatic mission buildings and purchasing a property next to Canada House in Trafalgar Square, consolidating services in one place.
Friday's announcement says the John A. Macdonald building in Grosvenor Square has been sold. It was last valued at $800 million but the government hasn’t released the selling price. The 250 staff will now be moving about half a kilometre to Trafalgar Square. The timeline for that move is expected to be years from now.
High Commissioner Gordon Campbell says the sale of Macdonald House was a “smart move economically" and will "more than pay" for costs of the transfer of the mission and its consolidation at Canada House.
"The great thing about this for the Canadian taxpayer is that we think that we’re going to send not just capital dollars home but the long-term operating costs of having the high commission in one location here in London on Trafalgar Square," Campbell told CBC News.
Campbell says the location for the consolidation — a place that often symbolizes London — can’t be beat.
"I think this is the primary diplomatic location — and not just for the U.K. and Western Europe. To have Canada House on Trafalgar Square be the one place where Canadians come for their services, their consular services, their passport services, is a long Canadian tradition,” Campbell said.
"I think it’s just a great opportunity to show off Canada in the 20th century."
Canada House, officially opened by King George VI in 1925, was the headquarters for Canada’s armed services during the Second World War. Its Beaver Club was a hub of actitivity during the war years, with service personnel gathering there regularly to hang out.
The Queen is a regular visitor, and in 2008 witnessed the names of Canadians who died in the First World war projected onto the building, a few tears streaming down her face.
It recently hosted Canada’s Olympic athletes and their families last summer.
The building that was just purchased is also of historic importance to Canada: it was opened in 1929 by the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada and served as the Canadian army’s overseas headquarters in London during the Second World War.
Campbell points out the locale in Trafalgar also has an emotional pull for Canadians. Canada House, which was almost sold off in the 1990s, hosts receptions and exhibits of Canadian art and artifacts. There’s a reference library and music listening posts featuring Canadian singers and musicians.
The locale is also the focus of the annual Canada Day street party in the square.
The construction of Canada House was finished in 1827. It was designed by Sir Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum. The Greek Revival building was first used by the Union Club and the Royal College of Physicians before it was bought by the Canadian government in 1923.
During the London Blitz a bomb fell only 18 metres from the building, at a time when future Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was secretary to the high commissioner.
"Last year, when we celebrated with the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee I had people come and say, 'I used to pick up my mail here,' or 'I used to sit and read the newspapers here about what was going on at home,'" said Campbell.
"The veterans that came here were all full of stories of what took place."