Casa Loma is one of Toronto’s premier tourist destinations. The site is run by an entertainment conglomerate which must generate considerable tax revenue for the city if the crowds on the day of our visit were anything to go by.
T’was the season, you see. The whole place had become an ersatz Christmas fantasy and Casa Loma was abuzz with small children and parents come to watch two dancers pirouette in a scene from the Nutcracker in the hallway, which was dominated by a massive Christmas tree with large baubles. Then there was the library which hosted a magician and other things that I don’t remember because I fled to the terrace where I sat inside a zipped up plastic igloo sheltering from the biting wind and drinking hot cider.
I realize that I sound like a real curmudgeon and we’re barely into paragraph three, but I can’t help it. Christmas is now a commercial racket that leaves everyone over the age of six feeling frazzled. Every year magazine articles extol people who get into the spirit of it all by hanging their hand-knitted stockings from a mantelpiece decorated with swags of juniper that they’ve been gathering in the forest since dawn and marveling at the trays of iced and sprinkled cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, Santa and snowflakes that they turn out every afternoon at 3:00 pm. But what they don’t say is that every one of them goes on to have a full-on nervous breakdown on January 3, before filing for divorce on January 8. But I digress.
To go back to the beginning….. in its brief heyday Casa Loma was built for a local businessman called Sir Henry Pellatt. Sir Henry started building his 98 room, 64,700 square foot turreted and castellated pile in 1911. It was the largest private residence in the country and the first to have an elevator. There was also a secret passage between Sir Henry’s study and the upper floors, not to mention a Wurlitzer organ. The whole thing was such an extravaganza that not only did Pellatt live in his house for less than a decade, the house was never completed; the Depression came, the taxes on his house went from $600 a year to a $1000 a month, he went bankrupt – taking several Canadian banks along with him – and was forced to decamp in 1923. He ended up living in his chauffeur’s house and in 1924, the house was seized by the city in lieu of unpaid taxes.
Sir Henry came from a relatively modest and conservative background, but his drive and determination to succeed was evident from a young age in everything he did. In 1882 at the age of 23 he married Mary Dodgson, an unassuming woman from a social background similar to his own. Shortly thereafter he and his father set up in the brokerage business where they made money by forming the Toronto Electric Light Company at the dawn of the age of electricity, but mostly in land speculation in the North-West where land would eventually be sold to the railways and net the Pellatts a fortune. Sir Henry went on to become a highly successful financier, investing in manufacturing, railroads and mining (including the McIntyre Mines which were once one of Canada’s most important gold mines – I wonder if they’re any relation of mine and if there’s any money left?), using borrowed money from banking institutions at a time when the whole shebang was entirely unregulated. Hence, the fall when it came was steep.
In 1885 he and Mary had a son called Reginald who was their only child. There is very little about Reginald in any of the literature or on the audio description, except to note that towards the end of his life old Sir Henry did not see much of him. Perhaps this is because when he talked about the three best days of his life, his only child’s birth was not one of them. In 1905 Henry was knighted for his services as a member of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, which remained an important part of his life. So important in fact that the third floor of his house is now a regimental museum devoted to them. Sir Henry was always a raging Britophile – his father was a Scot so I can’t accurately call him an Anglophile – who harbored the dream that one day King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra would grace Casa Loma with their presence. To that end he named one of the guest rooms the Windsor Room, although the King never made it over.
As for Lady Mary who seems to have been of frail health – the elevator was installed for her – she did not long survive the climb-down of being forced to leave Casa Loma and the auctioning off of most of their belongings. She died the following year in 1924. The indefatigable Sir Henry went on to marry Catherine Merritt in 1927, but she died two years later. He lived on until 1939 when he died in Toronto and was buried with full military honors.
Casa Loma remained empty for many years despite its magnificent carved stucco ceilings, hand carved wood paneling and enormous stained glass domed roof in the conservatory. Eventually it was taken over by the Kiwanis who turned it into a tourist destination until they lost control of it in 2011. These days it is rented out for weddings and private functions and is a popular film location for TV and movies.