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Destination Canada

Casa Loma: A Bridge Between Two Worlds

Casa Loma stands at the top of the Davenport ridge: a gigantic castle like the ones that abound on the old continent, but located in Toronto, where its silhouette contrasts with the modern skyscrapers in the city’s truly 21st-century skyline.

 Text and Photos: Javier Pinzón

I walk the streets of Toronto amazed by its modern appearance, with avant-garde buildings and skyscrapers that form a truly 21st-century skyline. However, as I stroll further through the city, I come upon a mysterious point atop the Davenport ridge that seems out of place, as it completely alters the modern landscape. This is Casa Loma, a castle in the style that abounds on the old continent.

Billionaire Sir Henry Mill Pellatt built this huge mansion in an attempt to copy Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The magnate drew up the plans with the help of Canadian architect Edward James Lennox, and although it was the previous owner who christened the land Casa Loma, Pellatt decided to keep the name.

It took three years and US$3.5 million to finish the castle in 1914. At the time, it was the largest residence in Canada, covering 647,000 square feet, with ninety-eight rooms on seven floors, decorated with art from Canada and around the world. Today, a century later, more than 350,000 people visit Casa Loma and its gardens every year.

Pellatt was involved in many fundamental aspects of Ontario’s development, such as harnessing Niagara Falls to generate electricity. However, his fortune proved insufficient to sustain the dream of Casa Loma. Facing huge debts and new government regulations that ended his monopoly on electricity, Casa Loma’s owner was forced to give up his castle after only ten years.

After Pellatt filed for bankruptcy, Casa Loma was put to a variety of uses. During the 1920s, the house was a popular nightclub where The Orange Blossoms, better known as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, were the house band. However, at the onset of the Great Depression, the halls were once again forgotten.

In 1933, the city of Toronto expropriated the castle to cover the large amount of back taxes owed. A number of possible uses were considered, including a museum, an art gallery, a clinic for veterans, or a permanent residence for the Dionne quintuplets (very popular at the time for being the first quintuplets to live through early childhood). None of these initiatives took shape and the option to demolish the building was even considered.

Finally, in 1937 Casa Loma came back to life when the Kiwanis Club took it over and, after an extensive refurbishment, opened it to the public. In 2004, the city leased the property as a museum and event center, and in 2011 the Casa Loma Corporation was formed, making it possible for us to visit this eccentric place unlike any other in North America.

The building incorporates many typical castle-like features such as turrets, parapets, chimneys, porches, greenhouses, terraces, and large gardens, despite actually being just a large house. It was built from Credit Valley sandstone, which was then covered with stone using a Roman mold. The walls, made of white Carrara marble, enclose details worth mentioning. The main floor includes a large living room with a 60-foot ceiling graced by the Pellatt coat of arms. Also on this floor are the library, with its luxurious oak floor, and the dining room with walnut veneer walls. Despite the various functions fulfilled by Casa Loma throughout its history, certain rooms retain some of the original furniture and details, like the marble floor in the conservatory and the breakfast room.

As expected, this luxurious house has hidden passages. In Sir Henry’s study, mahogany panels conceal a secret door on each side of the fireplace. And a unique shower in the master bath was designed to surround the entire body with six jets controlled by taps on three separate pipes. From the third floor —home to the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum— you can climb up to the castle towers on a narrow staircase and enjoy a magnificent view of the city.

Also of interest are the stables where Pellatt’s luxury horses were kept, along with his collection of motor vehicles and a wide variety of plants that grew in a large nursery. But perhaps the most characteristic feature is the castle’s Gothic five-floor tower, evoking medieval castles.

Casa Loma is not just one of Toronto’s essential sites; it is a landmark that represents the city’s essence and history. This explains the castle’s silhouette on many tourist brochures. So, when visiting the capital of Ontario, don’t miss this fascinating bridge between Toronto’s past and present.