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Hello From Toronto: A First Hand Look At Casa Loma (Part I)

Casa Loma, Toronto’s castle and the city's second most important tourist attraction, has an extremely interesting history. It was the life dream and brainchild of Sir Henry Pellatt, one of Canada’s most successful industrialists and financiers in the early 20th century. After learning about the fascinating background of this unique structure in my meeting with Lou Seiler, Casa Loma’s Director of Marketing, it was time to explore these fascinating buildings first hand. Lou exp...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Casa Loma, Exploring, History, Buildings

Casa Loma, Toronto’s castle and the city's second most important tourist attraction, has an extremely interesting history. It was the life dream and brainchild of Sir Henry Pellatt, one of Canada’s most successful industrialists and financiers in the early 20th century. After learning about the fascinating background of this unique structure in my meeting with Lou Seiler, Casa Loma’s Director of Marketing, it was time to explore these fascinating buildings first hand. Lou explained that Casa Loma actually is a complex that includes several buildings: the Stables and the Hunting Lodge (construction started in 1906), and Casa Loma itself (built between 1911 and 1913). The architect was E.J. Lennox, one of Toronto’s foremost architects who also built Toronto’s Old City Hall, the West Wing of the Ontario Legislature – Queens Park, and the King Edward Hotel. Pellatt loved medieval architecture and drew sketches of architectural details during his trips to Europe which he passed on to his architect for inclusion in the plans of his dream castle.

After leaving the basement cafeteria, Sir Henry Pellatt’s state-of-the art exercise room, Lou showed me the roughed-in swimming pool in the basement that was never finished due to lack of funds. It was supposed to be a lavish feature, clad in marble and decorated with gold swans. Then we had a quick peek into the castle’s Gift Shop, whose three arches were laneways for Sir Henry’s proposed bowling alley. We stayed with the underground theme and walked through an 800 foot long and 18 foot deep Tunnel past original furnace facilities that could burn the 800 tons of coal necessary to heat the entire complex over the winter. On the other side of the Tunnel we reached the Potting Shed, used to propagate the large number of plants on display around the estate. Pellatt was an avid lover of horticulture, had an extensive garden with exotic birds and animals and won several prizes for his orchids and chrysanthemums.

Our next stop was the Garage. Although these were the early days of vehicle ownership, Sir Henry Pallett owned four vehicles, and as a real pioneer of his times, he owned the first electric car in Toronto. Our underground explorations continued to several rooms that were used for growing mushrooms, part of the horticultural and culinary efforts at Casa Loma that would feed the many guests at the frequent social functions at the castle.

Back on the main floor our next destination was the Horse Stables. Sir Henry Pellatt owned several horses and Prince was the name of his favourite horse. When Prince started to lose his teeth in old age, Sir Henry had a set of false teeth made for him so his favourite horse would still be able to chew his food. Horses in general lived a great life at the Pellatt Estate: they enjoyed stalls built of mahogany, and floors of Spanish tile laid in a herringbone pattern to prevent them from slipping. Windows in the stables were hinged to open at the top so the horses would not experience any draft. Next to the Horse Stables is the Carriage Room, an impressive high-ceilinged space with a hammer beamed ceiling and decorative artwork with a wooden floor that is a foot thick.

As we walked back through the Tunnel to visit the main castle, Lou explained that members of the “Society for Creative Anachronisms” (SCA) performs medieval battle demonstrations every Sunday. The SCA is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe and has more than 30,000 members all around the world. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which may feature tournaments, arts exhibits, classes, workshops, dancing, feasts, and more.
They are also available for school visits and bring medieval culture to life.

Back in the main castle I was impressed by the Great Hall, a grand interior space 60 feet high, featuring a hammer beam roof. A 40 foot (12 m) high leaded glass window with 738 individual panes generously lets in natural light into this imposing space and gargoyles adorn the supporting columns. From here we turned into the Oak Room, whose original name was the Napoleon Drawing Room. This was indeed Sir Henry Pellatt’s drawing room whose walls feature solid oak panels carved in the style of Grinling Gibbons, a famous Renaissance carver. This room was featured in the movie “Chicago” as Richard Gere’s law office.

Then we went all the way up to the 3rd floor past the Queens Own Rifles Museum and started climbing up to the Scottish Tower. There are two towers at Casa Loma that can be accessed by the public. The Scottish Tower is enclosed, and can be accessed through 3 sets of narrow staircases above the third floor. Casa Loma is a castle that you can explore from top to bottom, including the rafters and open spaces under the roof! The Norman Tower features an open-air platform and is currently closed to the public. I was amazed that all these different areas are accessible to visitors, you can literally explore all the various nooks and crannies of this historic structure.

Despite the drizzly weather, the view from the Scottish tower was phenomenal. Casa Loma sits on a hill overlooking downtown Toronto, with views as far as Hamilton and Niagara Falls on a clear day. I had to line up at the winding staircases for people to file upstairs and downstairs before it was my turn to get to the highest point of the castle.

 

Hello From Toronto: A First Hand Look At Casa Loma (Part II)

The Queens Own Rifles Museum is part of fulfilling the legacy of Sir Henry Pellatt who always had a dream of turning the castle into a military museum. A large poster on the 3rd floor recalls the significance that Casa Loma played in world history: Casa Loma played an important role in the development of sonar technology, when the British government relocated their sonar research to Canada during WWII and chose underground spaces at Casa Loma as the location for advancing thi...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Casa Loma, Exploring, History, Buildings

The Queens Own Rifles Museum is part of fulfilling the legacy of Sir Henry Pellatt who always had a dream of turning the castle into a military museum. A large poster on the 3rd floor recalls the significance that Casa Loma played in world history: Casa Loma played an important role in the development of sonar technology, when the British government relocated their sonar research to Canada during WWII and chose underground spaces at Casa Loma as the location for advancing this technology. This invention played a significant role in turning the tide of the war.

The third floor also features servants’ rooms – with surprisingly generous proportions. Sir Henry Pellatt employed about 40 servants, the majority of whom lived on premises. The Round Room, although appearing to have an elliptical shape, is completely round including windows and doors as it is housed in the Norman Tower. The Austin Room and the Pellatt Board Room are actually available for rent for private and corporate functions.

The second floor of Casa Loma houses Sir Henry and Lady Mary Pellatt’s private living quarters. Sir Henry’s Suite is the smaller of the two, and none of the furniture is original. In keeping with mysterious medieval traditions, he had a secret storage area to the left of the fireplace to store confidential documents. His bathroom is most impressive, clad all around in Pavenzo marble. Spray nozzles controlled by six porcelain taps completely surround the shower for a full-body shower experience, way ahead of its time. Sir Henry’s love of modern conveniences also becomes evident in the more than 50 telephones that were installed all throughout the castle. The alcove in his bedroom actually held his electrical control centre from where he was able to control the entire building. Considering that Casa Loma was built almost 100 years ago, it is astounding to see all these leading-edge installations that would not be out of place in a high-end home in the 21st century.

Lady Pellatt’s Suite is decorated in soft pink colours and has an entranceway to a large stone balcony and a beautiful sitting area. In her later years Lady Pellatt was confined to a wheelchair and spent most of her time in her spacious 3000 square foot suite. The Girl Guides Exhibit pays tribute to her important role in this organization which at the time was still in its infancy. Just across the hallway is a Guest Suite which is decorated in a Chinoisery style which complimented Sir Henry’s collection of lacquered Oriental furnishings. On the way down to the first floor Lou pointed out the castle’s original elevator to me: it is named “Otis 1” and was Toronto’s first elevator in a private home. It is still functional today.

We took the grand wooden staircase down to the main floor where Lou pointed out to me that the original staircase, complete with imported marble from Italy, is actually located somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic as the transport vessel sank during the ocean voyage. To the left of the Great Hall is the Library which holds 10,000 books. Lou pointed out that the hardwood floor is the source of an optical illusion: when you look straight down, all the floor boards appear to be the same colour. But when you look away in the distance in one direction, one floor stripe appears light, the other one beside it dark. Then, when you face the other way, the same stripe now appears dark, while the one beside it appears light. The colours of the wooden planks just seem to magically switch.

The family logo “Devant Si Je Puisse” is featured in an elaborate coat of arms on the ceiling of the Library. The Dining Room right next to the Library is lined with walnut – no expense was spared for this castle. A few steps to the left is the Conservatory, for me the most visually stunning space in the entire castle and also Sir Henry and Lady Mary’s favourite place in the entire building. The magnificent bronze and glass doors leading into the Conservatory were modeled after a set made in New York for an Italian villa and at the time cost $10,000 to make.

During our visit, the Conservatory was used as a backdrop for wedding photography, and indeed Casa Loma is one of the favourite places in Toronto for people to get married. Lou mentioned that it takes about two years to be able to book a date for a wedding, and a few years ago one lady booked her wedding date even though she did not even have a groom yet. But in the two years before her wedding at Casa Loma she managed to find her future husband. In the end her dream of a fairy-tale wedding in this stunning castle came true. The black and pink marble floor was imported from Italy while the marble facings on the flower beds are from a quarry in Bancroft, Ontario. The flower beds were heated with steam pipes to ensure the perfect soil temperature for exotic plants.

Our tour was slowly coming to an end: we saw a Serving Room that featured original furniture from Casa Loma. The stove in the nearby kitchen was big enough to cook an entire ox. The long hallway, named Peacock Alley, was designed to hold Sir Henry Pellatt’s substantial art collection. Halfway down the hall is Sir Henry’s study, which features two secret passageways: a secret staircase leads upstairs to the second floor and another hidden staircase takes you downstairs to the wine cellar whose ammonia and brine-filled pipes were designed to chill the 1800 bottle wine and champagne collection of Sir Henry.

To complete my tour I watched the “Pellatt Newsreel” in the Billiard Room which recounts Sir Henry Pellatt’s life story in a 22 minute docudrama narrated by famous Torontonian Colin Mochrie (of “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway”). The moving and still images together with the narration provided an excellent summary of the ups and downs of Sir Henry Pellatt’s life, who was truly one of the most notable personalities in the history of Toronto.

The Gardens of Casa Loma are astoundingly beautiful and were renovated by the Garden Club of Toronto in 1989. Rare annuals and perennial plants, sculptures and a fountain adorn five and a half acres of well-kept grounds which offer some of the best vantage points to take in the magnificence of this structure. A beautiful terrace on the south side of the castle invites visitors to take a well-deserved rest after an indepth exploration of this heritage building.

Casa Loma is not only the second most important tourist attraction in Toronto, it also offers plenty of special and seasonal events for locals and travelers alike: summer events include Afternoon Tea events which include interesting lectures and a delightful afternoon tea buffet menu. Several Sunday Royal Brunches are offered which include a wide range of gourmet hot and cold foods as well as a sweet table and a free self-guided tour of the castle. The Casa Loma Kid’s Club hosts such events as a Dragon Making Workshop as well as a Become a Knight event. At the end of October Casa Loma becomes a Haunted Mansion for Halloween; and the Middle Ages Come to Life Sundays provide reenactments of the medieval period. There is always something special going on at Casa Loma.

 

Hello From Toronto: Discovering Casa Loma And Sir Henry Pellatt, The Fascinating Man Behind Toronto’s Castle

As part of my “Celebrate Toronto” article series I have set out with a goal of making one of the most complete discoveries of this city, focussing on the people and places of Toronto. One place cannot possibly be missing in this series: Casa Loma, Toronto’s Castle, together with Sir Henry Pellatt, one of Toronto’s most illustrious personalities.

Last Friday, on a somewhat drizzly day, I set out on my discovery and met Lou Seiler who is the Director of Marketing for Casa Lo...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Casa Loma, tour, visit, castle

As part of my “Celebrate Toronto” article series I have set out with a goal of making one of the most complete discoveries of this city, focussing on the people and places of Toronto. One place cannot possibly be missing in this series: Casa Loma, Toronto’s Castle, together with Sir Henry Pellatt, one of Toronto’s most illustrious personalities.

Last Friday, on a somewhat drizzly day, I set out on my discovery and met Lou Seiler who is the Director of Marketing for Casa Loma. We sat down in the basement of the castle, formerly Sir Henry Pellatt’s exercise room, which today houses a cafeteria. Lou started to fill me in on the building, its history and its interesting owner. Sir Henry Pellatt, born in 1859 in Kingston of English parents, was a successful Toronto financier, industrialist and military officer. His father had started a stock brokerage which Henry joined at the young age of 23, embracing the family motto “Devant Si Je Puisse – Foremost if I can”. Pellatt married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Dodgson, with whom he had one son, Reginald. Lady Pellatt later distinguished herself as the first commissioner of the Girl Guides. Henry Pellatt was very loyal to the British Queen and became a general with the Queen’s Own Rifles, a military regiment within the Canadian Armed Forces.

It was very early on that Henry Pellatt demonstrated his business acumen: he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883, the same year that Thomas Edison developed steam-generated electricity. This company was responsible for providing electric lighting and street cars on the streets of Toronto. After his father’s death in 1892, he was able to make even more aggressive investments and guessed right on the money when he purchased stock in the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the North West Land Company. Business colleagues used to call him "The Plunger" since he had a habit of plunging head-first into the next promising business venture. His astute decisions assured his path to financial success.

By 1901 Henry Pellatt was chairman of 21 major companies with interests in mining, insurance, real estate and electricity. As a single person he directly controlled 25% of Canada’s economy. His entrepreneurial spirit continued and together with some business partners he built the first hydro-generating plant at Niagara Falls in 1902. Henry Pellatt was knighted in 1905 by King Edward V for his service to the Queen and his efforts in bringing electricity to the people of Canada.

In the early 1900s Sir Henry Pellatt was one of Canada’s richest men and his high aspirations also extended to his personal life: he aimed to build a real castle by the name of “Casa Loma” – “house on the hill”. Construction on the complex started in 1906 and the first structure to be completed was the Pellatt Hunting Lodge. As Sir Henry was an avid horseman, the Stables were next on the construction schedule. Finally, the castle itself was built between 1911 and 1913. It cost 3.5 million dollars (about 60 million dollars in today’s money), took nearly 300 men almost 3 years to complete and incorporates a variety of architectural styles that inspired Pellatt on his trips to Europe.

Despite being one of the most influential men in Canada, Sir Henry Pellatt enjoyed socializing with common people. He was very generous to his employees, about 40 of whom were employed at Casa Loma. He even built a skating rink for them on the terrace of the Castle. Sir Henry was known to be a gregarious and outgoing individual.

However, Pellatt’s magic touch did not last forever: with the creation of the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission, power generation was transferred into the public sector. As a result, Sir Henry Pellatt and his business partners were expropriated without any compensation whatsoever. In addition, one of his other businesses, an aircraft manufacturing company, was also taken over by the government, again without compensation, as part of the war effort in WWI.

To make up for these losses, Pellatt went into land development west of St. Clair and Spadina, but around 1919 he was facing a major recession and his real estate dealings went sour. He owed the Home Bank of Canada $1.7 million – or $20 million in today’s currency. The bank went bankrupt as a result and in 1924 creditors, first and foremost the City of Toronto, turned to the castle to recover their unpaid property taxes. Although they were unable to seize the castle, as it was in Lady Pellatt’s name, all the movable property, furnishings and artwork were sold off at fire sale prices. As a consequence Sir Henry and Lady Mary Pellatt had to abandon their dream castle and moved to a farm in King City. Lady Pellatt passed away shortly after at the age of sixty-seven.

In 1927, Casa Loma was bought by a New York syndicate and turned into an upscale hotel. However, this only lasted for 18 months, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression put quite a damper on the high-end hotel business for a while. Sir Henry ended up getting the castle back, but as his wife had died in the meantime the City of Toronto, one of the castle’s main creditors, seized the building for $27,000 worth of unpaid realty taxes.

The city did not know what to do with the building and let it sit unoccupied for 10 years until finally in 1937, the Kiwanis Club stepped in and offered to run it on behalf of the city. Sir Henry meanwhile in his later years was almost destitute and ended up living with his former chauffeur in a modest bungalow in Etobicoke, one of Toronto's suburbs. However, Sir Henry's role and historic importance were not forgotten: upon his death in 1939, he received the largest funeral Toronto had ever seen up to this point. Thousands of people lined Toronto streets to catch a glimpse of his funeral procession and he was buried with full military honours.

Since 1937 the Kiwanis Club has been running Casa Loma, and through astute management of the complex has turned Casa Loma into the second largest tourist attraction in Toronto, with about 400,000 visitors a year, generating about $21 million in revenue for the city and surrounding merchants. Net proceeds from the museum go to children’s charities run by the Kiwanis Club. In the operation of Casa Loma, the Kiwanis Club has four major mandates:

1. Tourism: the castle is accessible as a day-time tourist attraction until 5 pm.

2. Catering and functions: more than 130 weddings are held here annually, and 240 additional corporate and media events take place at Casa Loma every year.

3. The castle is a major film location and movies such as X-Men, Chicago and many others have been shot here.

4. Casa Loma also serves the community by providing the backdrop for grade 4 students in medieval history and plays host to many other community events.

Before we headed off on our actual tour, Lou also shared with me the future vision for Casa Loma: the Kiwanis Club would like to develop the entire surrounding area into an “Estate District” which would encompass the former estates of three of Toronto’s leading families: The Austins at Spadina, the Eatons at Ardworld, and the Pellatts at Casa Loma. The vision calls for an upscale restaurant in the Hunting Lodge, and integration with the Toronto Archives Theatre, creating a gateway to the District with an introductory film on all three families. Several entrance points would be provided to the “Estate District”, including a plan for a funicular railway. Lou indicated that currently there is an unused funicular railway in Niagara Falls that could be brought in for this purpose. Art Gardens would be developed on the hillsides, including period arbours and pergolas, and a Themed Artists Mall would be located on the north side of Davenport Road. Themed tourism is an important travel industry trend draw and an entire ”Estate District” would be a major attraction for out-of-town travelers coming to Toronto.

As I had just recently visited Toronto's Distillery District, I understood the concept of "themed tourism" which builds an entire group of attractions around one common theme in a coherent vision, in this case some of Toronto's most influential families and their estates. I was quite impressed by the scope and creativity of the Kiwanis proposal and maybe one day we will see an entire district celebrating Toronto's foremost families.

After this great introduction it was time to explore these fascinating buildings first-hand.




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