The Interesting History of Casa Loma
Perched one hundred and forty metres high above Toronto’s Bloor West Village is the Gothic Revival-style icon known as Casa Loma. Currently, it is being operated as a tourist attraction and event facility by one of Toronto’s premiere restaurant and nightclub management teams, Liberty Entertainment Group. Liberty took over in early 2014, adding the landmark to an already impressive collection of multi-use facilities that include The Phoenix Concert Theatre, the Liberty Grand Ballroom at Exhibition Place, The Rosewater, Cibo, Tattoo, Spice Route and an equally exclusive lineup of locations in Miami, Florida.
Built between 1911 and 1914, its intended use was as a residence for its owner Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. Pellatt was a soldier and a successful financier who made his fortune in hydroelectric energy, mining and the railway, and it’s rumored that at least part of his intention in building Casa Loma was as an enticement for the Queen to visit. Sadly, rumor also has it, she never did. Pellatt himself was forced to abandon the property shortly after the end of WWI. The city of Toronto raised his property taxes from six hundred dollars a year to a thousand dollars a month, pushing the wealthy magnate into devastating recession, much like the rest of the country. He was only able to enjoy the home he had built for a mere ten years.
It’s ninety-eight rooms, seven floors, almost sixty-five thousand square feet of interior space includes an indoor swimming pool, an elevator, a walk-in oven, fifteen bathrooms, secret passages, and three bowling alleys. It is also home to one of the largest pipe organs in the world, though the one currently installed is not the original. The grounds feature five acres of gardens, a forty-three hundred square foot ‘Hunting Lodge’, stables, servant’s quarters, a one hundred sixty-five foot shooting gallery, and a series of tunnels connecting all of the buildings underground.
It’s said that Pellatt maintained a boyhood fascination with the medieval ages, and toured several castles in the United Kingdom when her was a boy. With this as his inspiration, he commissioned architect E. J. Lennox to design and build Casa Loma on his twenty- five acre Toronto estate. It took three hundred men three years to build it, at a cost of three and a half million dollars. Pellatt’s intention was to live out his life there, and to bequeath it to the city of Toronto after his death, hoping that it would be open to the public and used as a museum. It was an unfortunate series of financial losses that led to Sir Henry moving, but when you consider the expense of supporting such a grand residence, it might be more understandable. Twelve thousand dollars a year for taxes, fifteen thousand dollars a year to heat it, twenty two thousand dollars in servant’s wages, and all this in the 1920’s – it’s almost unimaginable what that might translate to in todays dollars.
There were several attempts made to put the property to good use after Pellatt vacated. Proposals were made to turn it into a veteran’s retirement home, a school, a convent, and it was considered several times as a film location by Mary Pickford. In the late twenties, a group of investors ran it as a luxury hotel, and during prohibition, it became a popular hotspot for the wealthy, who came to dance to the swing-era big band The Orange Blossoms. An attempt to run it as an apartment house was its final run before the city of Toronto seized it in 1933 due to back taxes, but it was just too expensive to maintain for it to be profitable. At the time of the seizure, it was so run down that there was a strong movement towards demolition. In the eleventh hour, the Kiwanis Club of West Toronto swept in and acquired the lease in 1937, with the intention of revitalizing the property, and turning it into a tourist attraction. In reality, it was used during the WWII years as a place to conduct research on and assemble sonar devices that were used for U-Boat detection, and this right under the public’s noses. It was quite elegant, really. Workers toiled away just steps behind flimsy barriers. Coming and going dressed as construction workers, the public was none the wiser.
The Kiwanis Club maintained the lease until 2011, and lost it following an inability to properly appropriate funds towards upgrades. In 2014, the city entered into a long-term lease agreement with Liberty Entertainment Group, who went on to invest almost seven and a half million dollars into restoration, revitalization and integrating new technology for educational and cultural programming. Today, it is open to the public for visits and multimedia tours. Tours include a screening of the documentary film on Sir Henry Pellatt, The Man Who Built Casa Loma, shown in the fully restored billiards/smoking room. The Liberty Café offers coffee and lunches from 10am to 4pm, and the outdoor Terrace Grill is open seasonally. Casa Loma is also a full-service event facility, its interiors as well as the surrounding grounds a popular location for lavish weddings, corporate events, photo and film shoots. Whether you are a Toronto native, or just passing through, Casa Loma is an attraction you must visit, and will certainly never forget.
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