A warm, western welcome has been blowing through the stately rooms at Stornoway since Rona Ambrose moved into the Official Residence of Canada’s Leader of the Opposition. Together with her partner J.P. Veitch, the interim leader of the Conservative Party is proud to share the century-old heritage home with a host of visitors and houseguests. The couple frequently invite people over and bring a lively presence to the picturesque neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park.
“We approach this as an adventure for us for two years and we want people to be part of it,” says the petite politician from Alberta. “The home is always full of MPs, travellers passing through Ottawa, family, friends of friends and people who just want to see Stornoway because it has an incrediblehistory.” While the house is not open to the public, Rona generously offers, “We do encourage people to come in for a cup of tea.”
The 34-room house on three levels is a busy place, especially when J.P.’s two youngest children arrive for their regular visits. His eleven-year-old daughter, and son who is eight, each have their own bedrooms on the private second level, and love exploring the character-filled house with its maze of corridors and back stairs to the kitchen. Over the years, many well-known children have lived at Stornoway including the princesses of the Dutch royal family during their wartime refuge, and Ottawa At Home’s columnist Catherine Clark, both before and after her father was elected prime minster.
A POPULAR POLITICAL SEAT
Since being designated as the Opposition leader’s official residence in 1950, Stornoway has housed numerous political families and future prime ministers. A sense of intrigue emanates through the home which appeals to the astute politician, who is attuned to all of its historical and political distinctions.
“Looking at the list of people who lived here, we like to imagine the machinations that happened between these walls – all the scheming and all the politicking,” says the engaging Rona. “Wars were fought while they lived here, big decisions were made about our country, and real families grew up here. There are lots of memories in this place.”
Built as a large country house for a prominent Ottawa family in 1913, Stornoway was designed in a Colonial Revival style by noted local architect Allan Keefer. After being purchased by the Government of Canada in1970 and then managed by the NCC, only a few major renovations have been carried out, with a new kitchen being the most recent. Yet, Rona reports that the house continues to be a favourite home with some former prime ministers who preferred the comfy living at Stornoway to the big house at 24 Sussex.
A WORKING HOME
Life as the leader of the Opposition involves frequent travel, and a riding in western Alberta means Rona and J.P. are rarely in Ottawa on weekends or during the summer. “We would love to enjoy the gorgeous gardens here more, but it’s our working home in Ottawa. Summer will be spent in our own family homes or on the road.”
When she is home at Stornoway, Rona’s two favourite places are the kitchen where everyone hangs out, and the nearby office which is tucked away under the main stairway and a great place to hide out. “There’s always lots of people and activity in the kitchen. It’s where I grab a bite on my way to work, make my juice or cup of tea,” she says, adding that with no sitting area in the kitchen, all meals are taken in the formal dining room, which has sunny yellow walls, a big bay window and French doors to a cozy sunroom.
To put some personal touches to the government-furnished public areas, the couple have added family photos, books, plants and a Bose music system. “It’s already a beautiful home and it’s a privilege to live here,” notes Rona whose only change has been to convert a TV room on the second floor to a gym. “For me, the measure of how comfortable I am in a home is how well I sleep. Being on the road in different cities is part of the job, so a good night’s sleep is important and I get that here!”
As a woman officially residing at Stornoway, she acknowledges that it creates a different domestic dynamic. “My spouse is a man, who has a busy career and is not accustomed to taking care of all the home stuff,” explains Rona. “But J.P. does it fantastically – he plans dinners and parties, looks after visiting friends and family plus gets groceries as well! We see ourselves as a real team and we’re both enjoying this experience so much.”