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cityscape

Historicist: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Casa Loma?

Every weekend, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Casa Loma, southern exposure with garden in foreground  Casa Loma: Canada’s Famous Castle (Toronto: Kiwanis Club, 1938)

Casa Loma, southern exposure with garden in foreground. Casa Loma: Canada’s Famous Castle (Toronto: Kiwanis Club, 1938).

How many headaches can one millionaire’s folly cause? If the rich person was Sir Henry Pellatt and his folly was Casa Loma, the answer is a century’s worth. When the City agreed to take control of operating the castle from the Kiwanis Club, it took on a landmark that has long caused imaginations to fill with ideas on utilizing its unique charms or daydream about tearing it down. If you have a fantastic suggestion for running Casa Loma, chances are good it was pitched to the City or investors between Pellatt’s move out of the castle in the mid-1920s and the first admission fee accepted by Kiwanis in 1937.

As Pellatt retreated to homes in Rosedale and King Township, the fate of Casa Loma fed the local rumour mill. Pellatt long stated that he wanted to turn the property over to the military for use as a hospital or museum (“Should I sell my home, I would rather see the soldiers there than anyone in the world”), but failed negotiations with various levels of government in late 1923 to create a home for incapacitated soldiers was the first of a long line of related schemes that fell though. The Toronto Board of Education thought the building had potential as a technical high school until the numbers were crunched. The Orange Order denied rumours it was interested in the site for its North American headquarters. During the winter of 1924, Pellatt turned off the heat, which led to extensive water damage when the pipes burst.

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Casa Loma auction sale, June 23, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 2959.

To regain some financial losses from his role in the collapse of the Home Bank, Pellatt auctioned off the fruits of his lavish spending in June 1924. It wasn’t a profitable venture, as antiquities and curios he had spent over $1.5 million on brought in $250,000. Bargains abounded, especially if you were in the market for 1,500-pound bronzed buffalo heads that required eight men to move them. Though Pellatt claimed he paid $1,000 for such a special item, the first bid was for the princely sum of zero dollars. The winning bid of $50 was submitted by a Mr. Gorman, who decided his new treasure would make an embarrassing gift. The lucky recipient probably kept quiet, which is too bad as re-gifting a massive bronzed buffalo head among the city’s rich might have become a wonderful Toronto tradition.

What emerged as a new tradition were the endless battles during the rest of the decade between those who wanted to operate Casa Loma as an apartment hotel, City Hall bureaucrats, and local NIMBYs. The fun began in March 1926, when architect William F. Sparling (whose works included the Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport that currently houses MTV Canada) and Pellatt asked the City’s civic property committee to remove residential restrictions so that new wings could be built onto the still-unfinished castle to house paying guests. When nearby residents campaigned against this proposal, Sparling warned that “the city will be left with a ruin on its hands instead of an active, revenue producer in the shape of considerable rates and taxes.” Despite numerous obstructions over permits allowing dancing and dining, Sparling pushed ahead and opened the Casa Loma Hotel to the public on April 19, 1927.

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Lady Pellatt’s former suite, converted into a billiard room during Casa Loma’s period as a hotel. Photo taken in 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 4067.

Among those who opposed the luxurious hotel was Casa Loma’s architect (and nearby resident) E.J. Lennox. He threatened to sue the operators to restrain them from using the castle as a spot to dine and dance, due to the potential effect of loosening restrictions on those activities on the neighbourhood. Reading Lennox’s testimony during his appearance at an Ontario Municipal and Railway Board (OMRB) hearing during the summer of 1927 leaves the impression that his actions were motivated by a lingering grudge against Pellatt for altering his original placement of the building on the property during its construction. Lennox admitted he wouldn’t have minded owning Casa Loma and operating it as an apartment building.

Another opponent who testified was temperance crusader Reverend Ben Spence, who believed “the evils of drink and all-night dancing together make it a dangerous proposition for a residential district.” He shared the concern of other dry zealots that Americans were using the hotel to get rip-roaring drunk in a way they legally couldn’t south of the border. Police officers who testified indicated that they hadn’t noticed any problems, nor had they received any complaints from the neighbours about rowdy guests—a special patrol set up when the hotel opened was quickly abandoned for lack of activity. Local ladies who lunched testified in favour of the hotel, as its tea room provided a nearby gathering spot. The OMRB (which soon dropped the “R” from its initials) ruled in favour of the Casa Loma Hotel’s continued operation—an occupied building was better than an empty one.

But Casa Loma wasn’t occupied for long. The hotel quickly ran into financial trouble and was unable to raise funds to build a new wing. By December 1927, Sparling was borrowing money from the wife of vanished impresario Ambrose Small to keep the hotel running. New owners that took over in early 1928 worked with Pellatt to convert parts of Casa Loma into an exclusive club. Too much time was diverted from hotel operations to run an unsuccessful membership drive. Guests were given a day to vacate the premises when the doors were shut on June 18, 1928.

Apart from emptying the pockets of investors, the hotel left a mark on the music world. In the summer of 1927, one of several orchestras jazz bandleader Jean Goldkette ran out of Detroit played an extended residency at Casa Loma. When Goldkette left, many of the younger members of the band stayed and, under the leadership of saxophonist Glen Gray, gradually became known as the Casa Loma Orchestra. The band moved to New York City after the hotel closed and became one of the first successful swing groups. In his book Too Good To be True: Toronto in the 1920s, Randall White described the band’s first hit, 1930’s “Casa Loma Stomp,” as sounding “a little like something a Toronto militia band might have invented if it had suddenly learned how to swing. Today, I think it qualifies as an authentic artefact of the city in the 1920s, in all its still-muted but already- kaleidoscopic ambiguity, irony and variety.”

Advertisement, the Globe, July 29, 1929

Advertisement, the Globe, July 29, 1929.

Undeterred by the hotel’s failure, Pellatt lined up a new group of investors for another try. Despite measures modern guests might appreciate such as sourcing meat and vegetables from Pellatt’s estate in King Township, unwise spending such as providing the chef with a chauffeur-driven Packard once again killed the Casa Loma Hotel. When the doors shut for good in early December, manager E.G. Borden was blunt when asked why the hotel failed: “No business.”

Seven years of vacancy followed. As Kiwanis tourist literature later described this period, “For years, Casa Loma stood like some haunted mansion with locked doors and ghostly emptiness. People daily saw it silhouetted against the sky and wondered what lay behind those massive walls. Few ever entered the stately castle with its baronial towers like battlements guarding the heights.” Pellatt’s finances were further weakened after the stock market crash in 1929 and the City grew tired of waiting for him to pay the $27,305 in back taxes he owed on the property. Civic patience ran out in February 1934 and the City assumed ownership of Casa Loma and the headache of what to do with it. Some city councillors who saw the castle as a white elephant that did nothing to enhance the City wanted to tear it down, but several construction firms determined the demolition cost outweighed the profit from selling off the rubble. Blowing it up was suggested, but dynamite experts pointed out the blast would blow in nearby buildings and shatter every pane of glass in the west end of the city. Despite the opinion of local architects that it was a visual disgrace (Eric Arthur told the Star that “I do not approve of more than one architectural joke in the city. I think Casa Loma is enough”), it was clear that “Pellatt’s Folly” wasn’t going to vanish anytime soon.

asa Loma’s library  Casa Loma: Canada’s Famous Castle (Toronto: Kiwanis Club, 1938)

asa Loma’s library. Casa Loma: Canada’s Famous Castle (Toronto: Kiwanis Club, 1938).

One scheme after another, including old standbys like military museums and elite clubs, generated brief bursts of excitement at city council and in the press. A consortium of health and social agencies, including the Canadian Medical Association, Ontario College of Physicians, Red Cross, and Victorian Order of Nurses, would have turned Casa Loma into a medical centre. The Hospital for Sick Children might have used it to ease overcrowding. A CCF-affiliated youth centre was discussed. A business lobby saw it as an exhibition hall. A woman promised American investment if she was allowed to operate a tea room and live in a luxury suite for a year. It could house a rare art museum or serve as a movie studio (rumour had it Mary Pickford was interested in shooting a film). The site could decay into a European-style ruin, though one with grounds maintained by the unemployed. Holy possibilities included a monastery, a new home for the Pope (in Orange Toronto?), and a compound called “Heaven” run by American spiritual leader Father Divine.

By March 1937, the City ran out of patience with the crumbling castle. After civic officials determined the structure was too sturdy to bring down, the Board of Control decided to settle its fate. New proposals rejected by the board during the next month included moving Ontario’s lieutenant-governor from Chorley Park to the castle and turning it into a travel information centre to serve the entire British Empire. Several controllers blinded by dollar signs pitched a plan to rake in tourist dollars by offering it to the province as a winter home for the Dionne Quintuplets—Controller Fred Hamilton enthusiastically noted that the exploited children “would be worth more to Toronto than 50 industries.” Calmer heads, including Mayor William Robbins and Dionne physician Allan R. Dafoe, dismissed the plan, which was defeated in a tight vote on April 20. A week later, an agreement was reached with the West Toronto Kiwanis Club to operate Casa Loma as a summer tourist attraction.

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Sir Henry Pellatt signs Casa Loma guest book, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 4013.

Several months after Kiwanis assumed operation of Casa Loma, Pellatt was invited to speak to its members at his former home. Pushing 80 and reduced to sharing a home in Mimico with his chauffeur’s family, Pellatt appeared to be, in the words of biographer Carlie Oreskovich, “a sad old man, not too sure of himself, unsteady, frequently unsmiling, often preoccupied, and forgetful.” He told the audience that Casa Loma was built as a place for visitors to enjoy themselves. “Your club is now using it for that purpose and bringing enjoyment and happiness to countless people,” he noted. “It could not be put to a better use. I am satisfied.”


UPDATE: OCTOBER 24, 2013: After taking over operations from Kiwanis, in 2012 the City of Toronto issued a request for proposals seeking new operators for Casa Loma, and it appears they have found one they like. Soon, council’s executive committee will debate granting a 20-year lease to Liberty Entertainment Group, whose plans include opening fine dining and banquet spaces, and installation of air conditioning. According to local councillor Joe Mihevc, Liberty would operate in the west side of the main building, with the remainder continuing as a museum. Not included in the deal are the coach house, stables, and potting shed, which Mihevc hopes will house a new city-centric museum. It’s too early to predict if opening night would include a performance of the “Casa Loma Stomp.”


Additional material from Casa Loma: Canada’s Famous Castle (Toronto: Kiwanis Club, 1938), Casa Loma and the Man Who Built It by John Denison (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), The King of Casa Loma by Carlie Oreskovich (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982), Too Good To Be True: Toronto in the 1920s by Randall White (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993), the May 1, 1950 edition of Maclean’s, and the following newspapers: the May 25, 1935 edition of the Globe; the April 17, 1937 edition of the Globe and Mail; the June 24, 1924 edition of the Telegram; and the November 7, 1923, April 26, 1926, April 25, 1927, May 3, 1927, July 6, 1927, December 3, 1929, March 16, 1934, April 21, 1937 editions of the Toronto Star.

Comments

  • nevilleross

    Turn Casa Loma into a hotel again, or maybe even a film studio, or a museum, or all three! (Why not? It's probably been done before.)

  • Nicole Schulman

    I've said it before and I will doubtlessly say it again…  Casa Loma is the perfect location a museum of the history of Toronto.  There's been discussion of housing such a thing in the old city hall, among other places, but Casa Loma takes the cake.

  • Stephanie Conn

    A boutique  hotel would be perfect. I”d stay there! It would have the flavour and grandeur of the Banff Springs. but be convenient for visitors to Toronto.. and would pay for itself. There would stlil be space for a historical exhibit.

  • Shirley Hughes

    The fate of the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ will be up in the air. It is not in the lease since it is owned, maintained and operated by the Toronto Theatre Organ Society. It’s not something that can be just hauled out, the pipes are installed in and around the Great Hall. Their silent film screening Nov 4th may be their last. It’s an amazing instrument that was originally in the now demolished Shea’s Hippodrome and then in Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s been at Casa Loma since the early 1970s. The Society rents the Great Hall for concerts and silent film screenings.