Casa Loma and Sir Henry Pellatt – Fascinating Toronto History

As part of my “Celebrate Toronto” article series I have set out with a goal of making one of the most complete discoveries of this city, focussing on the people and places of Toronto. One place cannot possibly be missing in this series: Casa Loma, Toronto’s Castle, together with Sir Henry Pellatt, one of Toronto’s most illustrious personalities.

Last Friday, on a somewhat drizzly day, I set out on my discovery and met Lou Seiler who is the Director of Marketing for Casa Loma. We sat down in the basement of the castle, formerly Sir Henry Pellatt’s exercise room, which today houses a cafeteria. Lou started to fill me in on the building, its history and its interesting owner. Sir Henry Pellatt, born in 1859 in Kingston of English parents, was a successful Toronto financier, industrialist and military officer. His father had started a stock brokerage which Henry joined at the young age of 23, embracing the family motto “Devant Si Je Puisse – Foremost if I can”. Pellatt married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Dodgson, with whom he had one son, Reginald. Lady Pellatt later distinguished herself as the first commissioner of the Girl Guides. Henry Pellatt was very loyal to the British Queen and became a general with the Queen’s Own Rifles, a military regiment within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Sir Henry Pellatt

It was very early on that Henry Pellatt demonstrated his business acumen: he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883, the same year that Thomas Edison developed steam-generated electricity. This company was responsible for providing electric lighting and street cars on the streets of Toronto. After his father’s death in 1892, he was able to make even more aggressive investments and guessed right on the money when he purchased stock in the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the North West Land Company. Business colleagues used to call him “The Plunger” since he had a habit of plunging head-first into the next promising business venture. His astute decisions assured his path to financial success.

By 1901 Henry Pellatt was chairman of 21 major companies with interests in mining, insurance, real estate and electricity. As a single person he directly controlled 25% of Canada’s economy. His entrepreneurial spirit continued and together with some business partners he built the first hydro-generating plant at Niagara Falls in 1902. Henry Pellatt was knighted in 1905 by King Edward V for his service to the Queen and his efforts in bringing electricity to the people of Canada.

Front entrance of Casa Loma

In the early 1900s Sir Henry Pellatt was one of Canada’s richest men and his high aspirations also extended to his personal life: he aimed to build a real castle by the name of “Casa Loma” – “house on the hill”. Construction on the complex started in 1906 and the first structure to be completed was the Pellatt Hunting Lodge. As Sir Henry was an avid horseman, the Stables were next on the construction schedule. Finally, the castle itself was built between 1911 and 1913. It cost 3.5 million dollars (about 60 million dollars in today’s money), took nearly 300 men almost 3 years to complete and incorporates a variety of architectural styles that inspired Pellatt on his trips to Europe.

Despite being one of the most influential men in Canada, Sir Henry Pellatt enjoyed socializing with common people. He was very generous to his employees, about 40 of whom were employed at Casa Loma. He even built a skating rink for them on the terrace of the Castle. Sir Henry was known to be a gregarious and outgoing individual.

Casa Loma from the garden

However, Pellatt’s magic touch did not last forever: with the creation of the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission, power generation was transferred into the public sector. As a result, Sir Henry Pellatt and his business partners were expropriated without any compensation whatsoever. In addition, one of his other businesses, an aircraft manufacturing company, was also taken over by the government, again without compensation, as part of the war effort in WWI.

To make up for these losses, Pellatt went into land development west of St. Clair and Spadina, but around 1919 he was facing a major recession and his real estate dealings went sour. He owed the Home Bank of Canada $1.7 million – or $20 million in today’s currency. The bank went bankrupt as a result and in 1924 creditors, first and foremost the City of Toronto, turned to the castle to recover their unpaid property taxes. Although they were unable to seize the castle, as it was in Lady Pellatt’s name, all the movable property, furnishings and artwork were sold off at fire sale prices. As a consequence Sir Henry and Lady Mary Pellatt had to abandon their dream castle and moved to a farm in King City. Lady Pellatt passed away shortly after at the age of sixty-seven.

The flowers are in full bloom

In 1927, Casa Loma was bought by a New York syndicate and turned into an upscale hotel. However, this only lasted for 18 months, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression put quite a damper on the high-end hotel business for a while. Sir Henry ended up getting the castle back, but as his wife had died in the meantime the City of Toronto, one of the castle’s main creditors, seized the building for $27,000 worth of unpaid realty taxes.

The city did not know what to do with the building and let it sit unoccupied for 10 years until finally in 1937, the Kiwanis Club stepped in and offered to run it on behalf of the city. Sir Henry meanwhile in his later years was almost destitute and ended up living with his former chauffeur in a modest bungalow in Etobicoke, one of Toronto’s suburbs. However, Sir Henry’s role and historic importance were not forgotten: upon his death in 1939, he received the largest funeral Toronto had ever seen up to this point. Thousands of people lined Toronto streets to catch a glimpse of his funeral procession and he was buried with full military honours.

The beautiful terrace on the south side of the castle

Since 1937 the Kiwanis Club has been running Casa Loma, and through astute management of the complex has turned Casa Loma into the second largest tourist attraction in Toronto, with about 400,000 visitors a year, generating about $21 million in revenue for the city and surrounding merchants. Net proceeds from the museum go to children’s charities run by the Kiwanis Club. In the operation of Casa Loma, the Kiwanis Club has four major mandates:

1. Tourism: the castle is accessible as a day-time tourist attraction until 5 pm.

2. Catering and functions: more than 130 weddings are held here annually, and 240 additional corporate and media events take place at Casa Loma every year.

3. The castle is a major film location and movies such as X-Men, Chicago and many others have been shot here.

4. Casa Loma also serves the community by providing the backdrop for grade 4 students in medieval history and plays host to many other community events.

Medieval splendour in 21st century Toronto

Before we headed off on our actual tour, Lou also shared with me the future vision for Casa Loma: the Kiwanis Club would like to develop the entire surrounding area into an “Estate District” which would encompass the former estates of three of Toronto’s leading families: The Austins at Spadina, the Eatons at Ardworld, and the Pellatts at Casa Loma. The vision calls for an upscale restaurant in the Hunting Lodge, and integration with the Toronto Archives Theatre, creating a gateway to the District with an introductory film on all three families. Several entrance points would be provided to the “Estate District”, including a plan for a funicular railway. Lou indicated that currently there is an unused funicular railway in Niagara Falls that could be brought in for this purpose. Art Gardens would be developed on the hillsides, including period arbours and pergolas, and a Themed Artists Mall would be located on the north side of Davenport Road. Themed tourism is an important travel industry trend draw and an entire ”Estate District” would be a major attraction for out-of-town travelers coming to Toronto.

As I had just recently visited Toronto’s Distillery District, I understood the concept of “themed tourism” which builds an entire group of attractions around one common theme in a coherent vision, in this case some of Toronto’s most influential families and their estates. I was quite impressed by the scope and creativity of the Kiwanis proposal and maybe one day we will see an entire district celebrating Toronto’s foremost families.

After this great introduction it was time to explore these fascinating buildings first-hand.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *