POLITICS
10/05/2011 05:07 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Fire at British high commissioner's home caused less damage than first feared

OTTAWA - A fire that flared in the attic of the British high commissioner's historic residence this week caused less damage than originally thought.

Flames broke through the roof of Earnscliffe, a Victorian mansion which was once the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, but were quickly doused by firefighters.

Andrew Pocock, the high commissioner who has lived in the mansion since January, said investigators have yet to find a cause for the fire, which erupted Tuesday evening.

"What we have determined is that the extent of it seems to be rather less damaging than we had feared," Pocock said in an interview.

"There was quite an intense fire in the attic and loft area of the house, but it stayed in a confined area and the fire department were very swift and professional and did manage to contain it."

Pocock, his wife Julie and two friends were in the residence when the smoke alarm blared about 7:30 p.m.

"We checked that it was the real thing and it was, the upper part of the house was full of smoke. We evacuated the building and the fire department turned up very quickly."

The diplomat said he was worried about the mansion, which dates to 1857.

"Standing on the lawn last night watching flames lick through the roof, I was very concerned, but this morning, in the light of a pretty Ottawa autumn day I can report that Earnscliffe is very solid, very much still here."

There is fire damage to the roof and water damage to the interior, but the building seems solid.

"We think that the structure is still sound," Pocock said. "It's a solid old building and we're hopeful that we'll be able to do enough to get us back in the house and the house working again in a month or so, six weeks. It's very hard to know, but that's our target."

Earnscliffe, which takes its name from an archaic English phrase for "eagle's cliff," was built by Thomas McKay, an early Ottawa industrialist, as a home for his daughter and son-in-law. McKay also built Rideau Hall, now home to the Governor General.

The mansion perches high over the Ottawa River with panoramic views up and downstream.

Macdonald bought the house in 1883 and died there in 1891. Reports of the day say the steamboats on the river below the house stopped using their whistles, and tramcars on the streets outside muffled their bells, as the old leader lay on his deathbed.

It was sold after Macdonald's death and the British government bought it in 1930 as a residence for the high commissioner.

Pocock said the fire spared the furniture, paintings and silver which adorn the mansion.

He and his wife are staying with friends temporarily, although the Canadian government has offered him the use of 7 Rideau Gate, the government's formal guest house which sits just across the street from the prime minister's home.

"We may take that offer up for a week or so while we just decide what we do next," Pocock said. "The Canadian government has been extremely generous."

He said the British government is determined to restore Earnscliffe to its former state.

A major refurbishment of windows and insulation in the mansion is already scheduled for next year.

"We'll either bring that forward or we will patch the roof and do the refurbishment next year."

He said he couldn't estimate the costs of the repairs, but said the British government is committed to full restoration of the heritage building.

"It's part of Canada's legacy and history but it's very important to the British high commission and the British government as well and we want to get it back in working order as soon as we can."