Casa Loma Toronto is a fairytale creation perched high on a hill. In some way, its history resembles the tale of Sleeping Beauty.
Once it was the largest private home in North America, the pride and glory of a successful Toronto businessman. Then it fell on hard times and in its darkest days faced the threat of demolition by the City who had seized it for unpaid property taxes.
Photo courtesy of Casa Loma
Luckily for us, in the depth of the Depression, Casa Loma was saved by a non-profit group, the Kiwanis Club, who restored the fallen castle and turned it into a tourist attraction. To this day they operate it as one of the most popular visitor destinations in Toronto.
The man who loved and lost Casa Loma was Sir Henry Pellat, a businessman who made his money in the railway and electricity. By 1911, when he asked famous Canadian architect E. J. Lennox (builder of the old Toronto City Hall) to draw up plans for his castle, he was already a multi-millionaire. Only a man of extreme wealth could have created Casa Loma, which took three years, 300 workers and approximately $3.5 million to complete. In fact all of the plans were never actually executed; the work only halted because of the start of World War I.
At 180,000 square feet, Casa Loma was the largest private home in North America. Its 98 rooms included a swimming pool room, plans for three bowling alleys, a luxurious conservatory, a library and a guest room expressly designed and set aside for the Queen or King, should they ever visit (they never did).
Casa Loma is part medieval fantasy, and part mishmash of every architectural tradition in history. The overall theme is "castle" of course… even the stables resemble a miniature castle, which shows that this businessman had a sense of humour. From a distance the castle looks unwieldy to me, top-heavy. There's also something vaguely academic about it, which is perhaps due to the neo-gothic look of parts of it, reminiscent of some buildings at University of Toronto.
While the style may be antique, however, the technology was very modern. The home had electricity (of course), elevators, telephones, and even central vacuuming. (Remember, this was started before World War I.)
Unfortunately for Pellatt, he enjoyed his glorious home for less than 10 years, because a series of bad property investments (as well as no doubt over-spending on the castle!) led to his bankruptcy in 1923. He had to sell everything and move out to the country, where he died in 1939, just before the start of World War II.
After Pellatt left in 1923, Casa Loma sat vacant for a while. In the late 1920s it became, briefly, a hotel, and then a nightclub. Seized by the city for back taxes in 1933, it went through a period of silence – like Sleeping Beauty – and at one point the city was even planning to demolish this so-called "eyesore". Then in 1936, along came The Kiwanis Club of West Toronto who offered to take Casa Loma off the city's hands and open it as a tourist attraction.
Windsor Room, Photo courtesy of Casa Loma
Today you can tour almost all of the rooms in the castle including the Windsor Room (set aside for the Guests Who Never Came … the Queen and King). One of my favourite rooms is Lady Pellatt's bedroom in that beautiful Wedgewood Blue. Her husband's bathroom is also quite impressive, with all that marble and the gigantic shower.
Photo courtesy of Casa Loma
Don't forget to visit the gardens, which are absolutely luscious and afford a great angle on the house.
If you're interested in military history, the third floor is the Regimental Museum for The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, of which Pellatt was a member (in 1905 he was knighted for services to them and that's where the "Sir" originates).
Casa Loma is located at One Austin Terrace near the corner of Davenport Rd. and Spadina Ave.
There's dining on site and a gift shop.
The tour is self-guided with an informative audiotape (included in the entrance fee).
For current information about hours and prices see the Casa Loma web site at www.casaloma.org.
WANT TO SAVE MONEY? Casa Loma is one of the five tourist attractions included in the Toronto City Pass (for $59 you get Toronto Zoo, Casa Loma Toronto, Ontario Science Centre, CN Tower and Royal Ontario Museum).
A near neighbour of Casa Loma is Spadina House Toronto. If you have time, be sure to check it out!
If you enjoy historic buildings you might want to stay in a historic hotel. Here's my summary of some of the best in the city: Toronto Ontario Hotels