The Toronto Castle Built on a Hill of Dreams
“[Architect] E.J. Lennox’s plans called for 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, 20 fireplaces, 20 chimneys, an elevator, an indoor swimming pool, a 150-foot shooting gallery, three bowling alleys, a 700 bottle temperature-controlled wine cellar, a $75 000 pipe organ, and an oven large enough to roast an ox.” This one sentence conveys a lot of information about Toronto’s Casa Loma, and not just in terms of pure facts. It’s very telling that guide Rick Jarden, who has been working at Toronto’s Casa Loma since the late 90s, has these figures memorized and can rattle them off from rote.
The legend of Casa Loma and its prominent place in the geographic and historical place in Toronto is shrouded in mystery and confusion, perhaps perpetuated by the fact that it was indeed designed as a “fantasy castle” by an eccentric millionaire in the heart of the city.
With its centenary upon us (original owner Henry Pellatt defaulted on his loans in 1923 and the City of Toronto took ownership a decade later). Much of the structure remained unfinished at the time, only ten years to the month that Pellatt and his wife, Lady Mary, having moved into the building that dominates the Davenport and Spadina (derived from the Ojibwa word “ishpadinaa” meaning “high or sudden hill” chosen by Dr. William Baldwin of Baldwin Street and the Castle’s “Baldwin Steps”) corridor is certainly a testament to the ambitions of a city and country emerging into its cultural prominence. If Titanic, built and sunk in the same period, (much like the original marble staircase intended for the building but sunk on route from England by a U-boat) was the “ship of dreams”, then Casa Loma might be its Canadian, land-based equivalent.
The History of the House on the Hill
Although not a real castle, Casa Loma, Spanish for “House on the Hill”, was built for and by a knight, Sir Henry Pellatt Jr. Born in Toronto in 1859 as the eldest of six children of Scottish immigrant Henry Pellatt Sr., who had built up the new Toronto stock exchange in the 1870s, young Henry was also an athlete and a graduate of Upper Canada College, setting a record for long distance running (later broken by Jesse Owens) in the 1880s, after which he toured Europe and eventually began working for his father’s brokerage firm, Pellatt & Ostler.
Although he began his career as a stockbroker, Pellatt Jr. soon became interested in electricity and hydro power after witnessing Thomas Eddison’s lightbulbs at the 1881 CNE. He created the city’s first power company in 1883, the Toronto Power and Light Company with various partners, and after ten years became the owner of all of Toronto’s streetcars, using the funds to pay his father to retire.
Aside from these two successful ventures, Pellatt then began investing in real estate and land development in Western Canada through the Northwestern Land Company, including shares in the Canadian National Railway by natural extension.
Further expanding his empire, Sir Pellatt, now worth about $17 million ($400 million today) and knighted by Edward VII in 1905 (both for his part in funding and arranging the decorations, logistics, and festivities around the Toronto visit of the future George V during Edward’s coronation, as well as an incident where he grabbed hold of spooked horses of the Queen’s carriage during the Jubilee celebrations of 1897), built the then largest hydro-electric project in the world, harnessing the natural power of Niagara Falls with a generating station by 1907.
Unfortunately, Pellatt had bet the farm, as it were, on maintaining a monopoly of hydro-electric energy. However, due to a combination of negative press about his various business dealings and ways of balancing the books with creative accounting, and the interference of Ontario’s then Minister for the Interior Adam Beck, the Pyrrhic victory of winning a case against the province regarding his holdings of a silver mine in Cobalt had the result of setting the precedent that natural resources were the property of the provinces. Subsequently, the day before Pellatt was to open his power-generating station, Minister Beck announced the creation of Ontario Hydro.
A real blow to his financial dealings, Pellatt then turns to Toronto real estate for solace and purchased 25 lots of land, as well as the Baldwin Steps up to St. Clair Avenue, in the Spadina and Davenport area, across the road from then the homes of the old Anglo-Irish power families like the Eatons, Ostlers and Austins, who viewed Pellatt as “new money”. It is here, in what was then a forested area used for hunting, that Pellatt begins construction of what would become Casa Loma in 1906 with construction of the original house, stables, and the Hunting Lodge, which still exists across from the main structure.
“That kind of ostentation,” comments veteran guide Jarden, “was not done” in the world of the then heavily Irish-Anglo Masonic influenced Toronto upper crust. The plans for the sprawling Gothic Revival building reflects the multiple influences (Scottish, French, Norman) of both Pellatt and E. J. Lennox, the somewhat notorious architect fresh off construction of City Hall and a very public fight with Council, who had refused to put his name on the building after going $2 million over the agreed upon budget (a harbinger of things to come). As a result, he defaced his own façade with caricatures of councillors and his name, which can be viewed to this day.
If anything, Pellatt was more ambitious than his architect, proposing such extravagances as marble stables, 250 meters of subterranean coal ovens, tunnels, and piping underneath all the structures (with the capacity to burn 800 tons of coal a year) for heat, 59 in-house telephones (at the time representing ¼ of all telephones in the city with its very own switchboard operator), a conservatory, and a library capable of housing 10, 000 books. The Conservatory, or Palm Room as it was then known, had indoor hot water piping built into the soil to grow orchids, marble floors, $10 000 glass door sets designed for an Italian villa, and a great overhead glass dome installed for $750 000 in today’s value. Everything being built was to be fully electrified, in keeping with Pellatt’s interests and financial investments in electric power. Three hundred specialized craftsmen and stone masons were brought over from Scotland for construction, who then found Canada to be a preferable standard of living and stayed on. So too did the staff hired by Sir Henry, made up of 40 impoverished adolescents sponsored and brought from Britain and trained at the estate, the only Canadian staff member being his chauffeur, Thomas Ridgeway.
By 1913, construction had been completed sufficiently for the Pellatt family of two to move in, and by 1914, three years and $3.5 million had been invested in Casa Loma’s construction, not including the $1.5 million in Louis XV furnishings and artwork such as Irish tapestries. In the ultimate example of excess, Pellatt was exact about the size, type, and shape of rock used in the stone fencing around the property, and paid farmers $1 for every acceptable rock brought to him. It was in fact more profitable to do this than grow crops, so the next year inevitably resulted in a crop shortage (according to legend).
Lady Mary Pellatt, who had not been raised in a privileged setting, was not overly fond of the house, stating she was wary of living somewhere so large she couldn’t clean it herself. She did, however, make use of it. Lady Pellatt was a moderately progressive suffragette who believed in equality in the marriage partnership and championed the Girl Guides, coordinating the organization from her sitting room to fill staff shortages in hospitals, homes, and other places of need in Toronto during World War I. Construction was also suspended during the war period.
She was right to fear the excesses of her husband. His large investments in Toronto real estate became problematic with the onset of the war, when 15% of the male population, his main buyers, were sent overseas. Then in 1919, there were 61, 000 Spanish Influenza casualties on top of a recession from the end of the Great War. Finding himself heavily in debt, a combination of failed investments and the selling off of shares to maintain his debt resulted in the loss of control of his own company, which was then sold to Ontario Hydro from which he made little to no profit. In 1920, to combat rising inflation, property taxes in Toronto were then raised overnight from $600 a year to $1000 a month. Pellatt had reached the point of critical mass in his financial affairs, owning the second largest private residence in North America after Biltmore Castle- and construction was not even completed.
Three years later, there was no other option but to default on $2 million worth of loans to the Home Bank, collapsing the bank. The Pellatts moved out, and five months later, Lady Mary died of heart disease. Creditors had no choice but to auction off everything inside at a massive loss on July 6, 1924 (including $75 000 worth of pipes that had arrived the day of the auction for $40). However, many of the original items from Casa Loma sold at this auction have been reinstated with records of authentication, and some like Jarden (who’s grandparents’ owned an antique store) have donated period-appropriate books to replace the once fake copies on the library’s bookshelves. The furniture in the Serving Room (painted in Lady Mary’s signature Wedgewood Blue) off the Conservatory is perhaps the closest to what it was 100 years ago, as Henry’s son, Reginald Pellatt, living in the Hunting Lodge across the street, somehow came into possession of the room’s items without them ending up at auction. He donated the items back to Casa Loma in 1965.
After Lady Mary’s death, Henry Pellatt married another widow, who also died two years later, and lived a quiet life in obscurity, dying with $185 in his bank account while living in his chauffeur’s guest room.
In an effort to make Toronto’s White Elephant profitable, or at least break even and finish construction, during the Roaring 20s, it was turned into a hotel mostly catering to rich Americans as a hotspot during Prohibition. Architect William Sparling took over completion of the ballroom, knocking out a wall and ensuring the floor could accommodate the weight of a train with concrete underneath the parquet flooring. However, the hotel failed, became derelict during the Depression, and was leased to the Kawanis Club until 2011. After they were unable to fulfill the terms of their lease due to the Financial Crisis, Liberty Entertainment Group took over a twenty-year lease, with the proviso of making significant restorations.
Espionage and World War II
A significant piece of military espionage technology owes its provenance to the castle. During World War II, U-boats (improvements on the model that had sunk the marble staircase in the previous war) were devastating Allied military efforts, and isolating the island of Britain in a blockade from receiving soldiers and supplies in or out of the island.
Although developed initially in 1918 to help detect and destroy U-boats and other underwater hazards, SONAR (sound and navigation ranging) technology originally only had a range of eight kilometres with a device called an ASDIC. However, a bombing of Britain’s ASDIC plant necessitated both the need for secrecy and relocation of the project.
It was then advanced and overseen in particular by the Royal Canadian Navy, who specialized in convoy escort, by asking Canadian oceanographers to further study the behaviour of sound underwater. The National Research Council undertook a mission of refining the detection of submarines, and Canadian engineer William Corman came up with the idea of using Casa Loma’s abandoned stables as a research facility. It was kept top-secret, even from city councillors, and for the duration of the project a sign was put outside for tourists stating, “Construction in progress- sorry for the inconvenience.”
“It was twenty unarmed men hiding in plain sight with a $1 lock,” says Jarden. Not until decades later were the records unsealed and the secret made public.
The Casa Loma of Today
Today the mansion, which is operated by Liberty Entertainment Group, serves several functions, and as the location for filming interiors for many well-known films. Aside from daily visitors, which has begun to pick up post-COVID, Casa Loma is also the location of the BlueBlood Steakhouse, which is open for dinner after five every day, when the museum closes, and is run as an independent entity.
Besides being the location most heavily patronized in the building by high-end diners, the Oak Room (originally the Napoleon Drawing Room) managed to keep the intricate original wood panelling, made in England over a period of three years and shipped over by the company that did the same work for the Titanic. The room also retains the original coiffuring moulding, now a lost art, that allows for the bounced light effect from the many chandeliers.
The Oak Room is also immediately recognizable to movie fans as the set for both Richard Gere’s character’s office in Chicago and Professor Xavier’s office in the original X-Men. Indeed, the same set designer, Richard Myhre (who later won an Academy Award for his work in Chicago) was used for both films.
Jarden recalls the filming of X-Men, as many of the interior scenes were shot over a three-week period in Casa Loma. “There were oddly dressed extras everywhere, and I didn’t recognize Hugh Jackman because it was his first big movie. In fact, it was the first time we shut down for anything since the 1930s.” X-Men would put Casa Loma on the map for filming, and posters for movies shot there can be seen lining the halls of the basement, which also houses the enormous wine cellar previously mentioned. Just the week before the writing of this article, another filming of popular tv series The Boys took place.
Aside from main stream films, Casa Loma is also a very popular wedding venue. Typically booked a year in advance, there are on average two weddings a day on the weekends the summer, and one in the winter. In summer, the Glass Pavilion on the back porch in the Casa Loma gardens, facing the city skyline, is the most popular spot, although the main room has a capacity for 216 people.
Aside from self-guided tours, which are drop-in using the Casa Loma mobile audio guide app or with one of the Audio Guides which are available for rent during the opening hours of 9:30-5 seven days a week in four languages (English, Spanish, French, Chinese), private tours, VIP tours, and specialty tours are available with advance notice. There was a big educational program with specialized school tours pre-COVID (which the administration hopes to start again later this year), including a World War I tour for grade tens, a Medieval tour for grade fours, and a mystery tour for kindergarten and grade ones.
The newest and perhaps most popular feature of Casa Loma are the five themed escape games, two involving World War II and espionage, one of the Prohibition Era and bootlegging, a mystery tour for families, and a Murdoch Mystery tour.
Casa Loma remains the city of Toronto’s “house on the hill”, which recalls many references from literature and lore. It is certainly still full of mysteries, and the walls hide the secrets of both unknown passages and the many strange events and characters that have walked the halls for the past century. Some things, such as the uncovering of a secret chamber in the master bedroom, the uncovering of a horse skeleton under the front porch, and a demon statue now on view near the pavilion, will remain mysteries. The sadder established story of Sir Henry Pellatt is a testament to the large-scale historical events that shook and shaped the twentieth century in Canada. What the next century will bring, only time will tell.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD | WEDDING PHOTOS COURTESY OF: CASA LOMA