Visiting Casa Loma, Toronto, Ontario: Neo-Gothic dream of Sir Henry Pellatt, punished by the City for his affluence
Impressive; plenty of controversy; and fairy tale accounting?
Sir Henry Pellatt (1859-1939)(1) spent $3,500,000 on this sumptuous, Neo-Gothic mansion, completed in 1914. It still provides visitors with a vision of a Medieval castle, which has impressed generations of tourists.
Having spent so much of his money on this project, Sir Henry Pellat was first forced to sell off many of its contents and then to vacate the property, less than 10 years after he and Lady Pellatt moved into it.
The reason? It was because members of Toronto City Council decided after World War One to impose punitive taxes upon Casa Loma. Overnight, it changed property taxes for Casa Loma from $600 per annum to $1000 per month.
However, nature has a way of bouncing back. The City of Toronto ended up possessing Casa Loma in 1933; and thus, with the City's leaders having coveted it as a source of income for punitive taxes, it in due course fell to the City to figure how to pay for the building's upkeep.
Over a number of decades there have been several solutions to the question of how the City of Toronto should ensure that the building's upkeep is paid for. There was a longstanding leasing arrangement with the Kiwanis. To date, the City of Toronto is still the owner of the property, while in recent years it has increasing served as an event facility while continuing as a popular tourist attraction. The building is able to accommodate events with up to 550 people at a time. Between 1997 and 2012 $33 million was spent on restoring the property, largely at the expense of the City's coffers. In recently years the City has been trying vigorously to get the private sector more involved in the property. One wonders, if Casa Loma had been allowed to stay in private hands, if also the City's tax-payers would be better off! But doubtless some politicians would say this is too simplistic a question! (2)
For a while in the 1920s, the travelling Casa Loma Orchestra was based at the castle.
The castle's architect was E J Lennox (1854-1933), also responsible for Toronto's Old City Hall. Among the huge building's defining features are its round towers, some of them bulbous, with conical roofing, and its profusion of pointed arches. As one approaches the building, it is as if one has forgotten that one is in North America and rather, Europe of the Middle Ages is looming up. Canada does have many old buildings, and places such as Quebec City contain architectural gems from centuries back; they are not Medieval, however. But Casa Loma, though dating from the early 20th century, does project the observer back to a (supposedly) romantic era of Medieval castles and brave knights. Indeed, the castle is regularly hired out for film shoots, thus providing an evocative back-drop.
The interior of the building includes a particularly impressive Great Hall, complete with balcony. The Great Hall's oak beamed ceiling is 18.29 metres high. One can easily let one's imagination run here, with evocations of knights gathered to their lord and host. Much of the building's original furniture was imported from Europe by Sir Henry Pellatt, that is, before his fortunes began to wane. The Conservatory contains a fountain, and some striking, stained glass windows. The well-appointed Library is sometimes used as a dining facility; its floor is made of herringbone oak.
Casa Loma is located at 1, Austin Terrace, Toronto. It is set on a hill - the meaning of its name. From the building, fine views of Downtown Toronto — including the CN Tower — may be obtained.
The grounds of Casa Loma are open to the public in the spring, summer and fall, subject to weather conditions. These gardens run to five acres. Features of the gardens include rhododendrons, roses and a cedar hedge.
There are stables over the road from Casa Loma, which belong to the property, and I was interested to walk along a tunnel which connects them to the main building.
While visiting Casa Loma's sumptuous interior, I came across a portrait of HRH Princess Alexandra, who served as Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, of which the building functions as the Regimental Museum. Interestingly, Sir Henry Pellatt himself originally joined the Regiment as a Rifleman, and eventually became its Commanding Officer, and holding the rank of Major-General. Prior to financial difficulties in later life, Sir Henry was successful at many ventures and it is from his association with the Queen's Own Rifles that his knighthood was derived.
In World War Two, Casa Loma also took on further military significance when experiments were conducted there with the development of sonar devices, to be used against U-Boats; the sheer importance of this work was underlined by Canada's major and costly rôle in the North Atlantic Convoys.
Casa Loma has long been a popular educational destination for school trips. Regular guided tours are available to visitors. The management of the castle maintains a commercially astute gift shop; and a cafeteria.
In 2014 the Royal Canadian Mint produced a special coin to commemorate architectural achievement at Casa Loma.
February 17, 2015
(1) Sir Henry Pellatt made his fortune in hydro-electric power, through his Toronto Electric Light Company, and also had interests in the Canadian Pacific Railway, and elsewhere.
(2) Casa Loma is sometimes the venue for widely reported speeches. As a resident of Ontario, one simply observes that the City of Toronto continues sometimes to pursue somewhat unusual approaches to the question of cost-effectiveness for tax-payers. In February 2015, former Mayor Cllr. Rob Ford, who in 2013 made a high profile speech at Casa Loma on the importance of tax-payer cost-effectiveness, was expelled from the Council Chamber for asking why the cost of a Councillors' official trip to Italy, which was up for approval, could not be accurately ascertained (presumably it was Cllr. Ford's job to ask such questions?). It may be said by some Torontonians that issues thus portrayed are controversial: I am here supplying a link to Mayor Ford's Casa Loma speech, so that readers are able to come to their own conclusions on its merits and on who, instead, over the decades, has been chiefly responsible for fairy-tale accounting in Toronto: http://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2013/11/21/rob_ford_speaks_at_casa_loma.html
See also: www.casaloma.org . Some additional sourcing: Wikipedia.
[Addendum: Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford passed away in March 2016.]
Also worth seeing
In Toronto itself, its many visitor attractions include: Old City Hall, Fort York, Campbell House, the CN Tower, Casa Loma; the Ontario Legislative Assembly Building at Queen's Park, Union Station, and many others.
How to get there: Porter Airlines, flies to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, and has wide North American connections. Car rental is available at Union Station; Air Canada flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available, but visitors to Downtown Toronto will find many sights to be easily walkable from Union Station. The TTC stop for Casa Loma is St Clair West station or Davenport 127 bus; with several minutes walk thereafter. Guided tour information for Casa Loma is availalble at 647-725-1822, or from email@example.com . For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent. For any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities, you are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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