The Magic & Mystery of Casa Loma

Casa Loma South Facade

Casa Loma 1920s

Casa Loma circa 1920

Many words come to mind when standing before the palatial Casa Loma, such as romance, intrigue, ambition, brilliance, passion and mystery.  Casa Loma inspires such deep emotions because it was the unique legacy and obsession of the iconic Sir Henry Mill Pellatt (a prominent Canadian financier, industrialist and military officer of the early twentieth century, who at one time controlled 25% of the Canadian economy).  A “Robber Baron” who was an unabashed romantic, Sir Henry engaged the acclaimed Architect E.J. Lennoxwho designed the exquisite Old City Hall of Toronto & the Bank of Toronto buildings, to help him realize his life-long dream of creating a massive castle (Casa Loma is nearly 180,000 sq. ft.).  The castle was a compilation of his favourite architectural features and styles from many periods including Norman, Gothic, Medieval, Edwardian and Romanesque styles.  Casa Loma is indicative of the vivid opulence of the Gilded Age and was both equally a visual sign of power and an expression of his romantic spirit.  The castle took three years and $3.5 million to build (the initial budget had been $ 250,000 dollars) and another $ 1.5 million to furnish, that sum when adjusted for inflation would equal nearly $ 150,000,000. dollars today.  Casa Loma stood as a monument to its creator, Sir Henry and was the largest private home in North America, with soaring battlements, secret passageways, a 60′ high Great Hall and palatial rooms with hand carved walnut walls, all paying homage to history, beauty and most of all, Sir Henry.  Sadly however, much like Camelot, it was to be a short lived age of glory in the castle.

Casa Loma facade front tower

Front facade of Casa Loma showing the central entrance tower and Porte cochere

Casa loma South facade looking up from the 2nd terrace to west wing

The South Facade of Casa Loma’s West Wing as seen from the Lower Terrace.  The raised terrace off the main floor hides a maze of rooms beneath and has a secret door into the base of the Scottish style tower.

Unique not only because of its epic scale, spectacular architectural detailing and master craftsmanship; Casa Loma was as well singular in the modernization of its interior.  The castle was designed with the latest in technological features of the day including being wired for electric power, which was VERY unique at this time. Of course since Sir Henry OWNED Toronto electric before it was expropriated by the Ontario government this makes sense, because in effect the castle was a showroom for the benefits of electric power.  The castle was as well fitted for a central vacuuming system and had its own telephone exchange with 53 telephones (local folklore says that more telephone calls were made in one day at Casa Loma than in the entire city of Toronto at that time).  Other items of technical interest include the castle’s ovens which were so large they could cook an entire ox (as in whole), as well as having an elevator (the first private elevator in a home in North America), two vertical passages for pipe organs, several secret passages/stairwells, an 800′ long underground tunnel connecting the castle to the stunning stables as well as three bowling alleys and a pool in the basement level.

Casa Loma 1920 approx

Sir Henry, from an early age, embraced the family motto “Devant Si Je Puis” or “Foremost If I Can”.  He was born to British parents in Kingston, Ontario on January 6, 1859 and was ferociously ambitious from his youth.  Sir Henry had already achieved local renown in 1879 for beating the U. S. amateur champion in the World record for running of the mile, and had decided to leave his studies at Upper Canada College when he turned seventeen to pursue a career in commerce in the family business. By the age of 23, he had become a full partner in his father’s stock brokerage firm, Pellatt and Pellatt and would soon expand his business interests to the point where he would personally control 25% of the Canadian economy.  Sir Henry, in addition to being a “Robber Baron” was also a visionary.  In the same year that Thomas Edison developed steam-generated electricity, Sir Henry realized that supplying electricity could be extremely profitable. He founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. By the time he was 30, the Toronto Electric Light Company enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of street lighting to the city of Toronto. Countless excursions to Europe fostered Sir Henry’s near obsessive love for fine Art and architecture,which in turn would spur his passionate vision of Casa Loma.

Casa Loma built 1912The South Facade of Casa Loma, proudly overlooking the city on the high hilltop

By 1901, Sir Henry was chairman of 21 companies with interests in mining, insurance, land and electricity. In 1902, he and his partners won the rights to build the first Canadian hydro-generating plant at Niagara Falls and he was knighted in 1905 for his military service with the Queen’s Own Rifles. In keeping with his palatial views on construction, Sir Henry had E.J. Lennox design the power plant in Niagara Falls (the Toronto Power Generating Station) to resemble a European Monarch’s palace,truly spectacular structure.

Casa Loma South FacadeSouth view showing the main block of Casa Loma

As a result of the constant large scale entertaining required to keep up with all the various businesses, political manouevring, social climbing and philanthropical pursuits, the planning of the social calendar and entertaining at the castle consumed nearly every moment of Lady Pellatt’s time.  However, despite Lady Pellatt’s continuous frail health, she did play a vital role in the promotion of the Girl Guides of Canada. She was appointed the first Commissioner of the Girl Guides of Canada and in 1919 was honoured with the Girl Guides highest award, the Silver Fish.

Casa Loma StablesThe carriages about to depart the Stables circa 1918

Casa Loma Sir Henry and Lady Pellatt 1918 or 1920

Unfortunately, Sir Henry could not sustain the magnificent “White Elephant” that was Casa Loma after a series of disastrous financial setbacks and he and Lady Pellatt moved to King City in 1924, until her death 1 year later.  The interior of the castle at this time wasn’t entirely completed, as construction on the interior had to stop with the onset of World War I.  So William Sparling, who had been granted a long-term lease when Sir Henry had left the castle, began the process of completing the Great Hall, the Billiard Room and the 3rd floor, areas that Sir Henry had never finished. This changing of “design gears” explains the dichotomy of styles on the interior, for whereas Sir Henry had exquisite taste and a wondrous attention to detail; William Sparling had an overt like for textured stucco (something more akin to the interior of Spanish mansions from the Silent films of the era).  Sparling also had plans to add two large wings to the east and west sections of the main building that would each contain 96 full suites and 56 rooms for a proposed Hotel, however luckily these wings were never built.

Casa Loma Stables EJ Lennox Architect 1905The stables of Casa Loma were built in 1905, well before the castle was erected, when Sir Henry first purchased the 25 acre lot from the Austin family (the owners of the nearby Spadina House estate).  The stables were also designed by E.J. Lennox and was considered the “trial run” for the construction of the castle.  The stables cost $ 250,000. to build, or nearly 7 million dollars today.

Casa Loma Coach House and Stables south wing

The entrance to the Carriage House

During the late 1920’s, Casa Loma became a popular nightspot for the “in crowd” with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra playing for nearly a year in 1927 and 1928.  Shortly thereafter, they went on tour of North America with their big band sound.  However, tragedy would strike again and with the onset of the Great Depression Casa Loma would once again become vacant, however this time the castle would suffer serious damage from vandals during this period. In 1933, the city of Toronto took ownership of the property and voted on tearing down the castle, luckily for ALL of us, this decision was defeated and we have the wondrous castle today.

Casa Loma Conservatory in 1915The Conservatory in full bloom in 1915

During World War II, the Allies had a disastrous time at first in their fight with the German U-boats who were sinking Allied supply ships. In response, the British developed the predecessor to the modern-day sonar, (known as the ASDIC device) which enabled Allied ships to locate the U-boats and defend themselves against attack. The reason this is of particular interest and noteworthy, is that after the Germans bombed the manufacturing plant in Britain where the ASDIC devices were constructed.  The manufacturing was then secretly relocated to Canada so that is could continue in secrecy and safety. The Canadian engineer who was responsible for the relocation had to find a place which would not be suspected by potential German observers. He chose Casa Loma, because as he put it, “Who would suspect a freak castle…”.  No one ever suspected, in fact Toronto city councilors were completely unaware of the work that was going on in the basement of this “freak castle”, until more than a decade later.  In 1937 Casa Loma was opened to the public for the first time as a tourist attraction operated by the Kiwanis Club of Toronto, who would run the management of the castle until 2012.  Casa Loma now is again looking for new leadership as the city has resumed its management of the castle, and is deciding upon how best to showcase its history, beauty and maintaining its ties to the community.
Casa Loma Oak RoomA corner of the Oak Room in Casa Loma… Sir Henry’s favourite room.  European craftsmen took 3 years to carve the walnut panels in this room.
Located across the street are the magnificent stables and carriage-house of Casa Loma, more like a small castle in itself.  Sir Henry’s royal aspirations for his family (as seen in the interior of Casa Loma with the exact replica of the Peacock Alley from Windsor Castle and the Windsor suite) are prevalent in the stables with the horse stalls themselves having been built to exactly resemble those at Buckingham Palace.  The stables, like the castle, were designed by E.J. Lennox and actually predate the castle by 6 years as they were built in 1905, at a cost of over $ 250,0000 (over 7 million dollars today).  The stable “castle” was built first as a “dry run” for the construction of the castle when Sir Henry first acquired the original 25 acre lot from the important Toronto Austin family.  The stables are connected to the castle with an 800′ long underground tunnel, nearly 18′ below the surface.  The tunnel was constructed so Sir Henry wouldn’t have to step outside in the winter… an utterly reasonable request if you ask me.
Casa Loma floor plan ground floor
The ground floor plan of Casa Loma
2. This is the famous library with the carved plaster ceiling with the crest of the Pellatt family hand carved into each spandrel.  The library was built to hold 10,000 books.
3. The formal dining hall with its hand carved Circassian walnut walls.  The tower alcove housed the smaller dining area for more intimate guest dinner parties.
7.  Sir Henry’s Study with its secret passages up to the upper landing and down to the wine cellar.
Casa Loma floor plan second floor
Casa Loma Second Floor
10.  This is Lady Pellatt’s exquisite suite of rooms, all painted in her trademark wedgewood blue.
19. The infamous “Round Room” built in an Adams-style with rounded doors built for the corners.
Casa Loma floor plan third floor
Casa Loma Third Floor
Casa Loma floor plan lower level
Casa Loma Lower Level
Casa Loma the Peacock Alley looking west
Stretching all the way from the stunning Italian marble floor conservatory to the 60′ tall Great Hall, The Peacock Alley is an exact reproduction of the Peacock Alley in England’s majestic Windsor Castle.  The walls are hand carved oak and the floor is wide plank teakwood.
Casa Loma Oak Room carving detail 2
The Oak room with its French oak hand carved panels that took 3 years to
carve.  Sir Henry used to call this his private Drawing room
Casa Loma Conservatory Alcove
The alcove in the conservatory with its Italian marble flooring and spectacular window detailing
Casa Loma foundation being layed 1910
The laying of the foundation of Casa Loma in 1910
The stained glass dome in the Conservatory
Casa Loma Stable stall with herringbone tile floors and cast iron gates
A horse stall in the Stables
Casa Loma Stables
Interior of the Stables with its herringbone tile floors and carved mahogany walls & cast iron panels
The sitting area in Lady Pellatt’s suite
Casa Loma in Summer
looking up towards the castle from the lower gardens
Casa Loma Stables 1911
The Stables of Casa Loma circa 1911 showing the greenhouses located off the potting shed wing of the Carriage House.  Hot house plants would be taken to the castle in Winter via the 800′ underground tunnel, ensuring the conservatory was always well stocked with exotic blooms
Horseback riding on the Casa Loma properth north of the castle in 1920
This photo from 1920 shows the original scale of the 25 acre property around Casa Loma.  The rider has taken a horse from the magnificent stables and is riding North of the castle.
  1. Emily V.Emily V.03-04-2013

    WOW. Amazing, I’ve never been before but you’ve inspired me! Great post Robin!