Casa Loma: The Story of Henry and the House on a Hill

Nestled on a hill lies a mysterious castle within Toronto’s Annex, overlooking bustling cafes, museums and university campuses. Passersby at Spadina Road and Dupont Street would turn their heads, puzzled and enamored at the grey turrets poking out of the trees before commencing their school commute. Surrounded by aged, heritage homes, the castle’s imposing nature is an unusual contrast to the city’s jungle of condos. The place is called Casa Loma, roughly translated from Spanish to “Hill House.”
I once visited this place long ago back in sixth grade and haven’t returned since. Until now. During a warm, mid-October Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were in the mood for an expedition. And he had never once stepped foot there. Our initial destination was the equally historic Evergreen Brickworks for Cask Days, but word had spread about long lineups and travel pandemonium. So we decided to go back in time to what felt like the Middle Ages – minus the ale and jousting.

I had a vague idea about Casa Loma’s origin story. The king of the castle was Henry Pellatt, a Canadian financier and military veteran who rose to immeasurable wealth through pioneering the large scale distribution of hydro-electricity across Toronto. Casa Loma was his dream come true, but as the story unfolds, his success didn’t last.

Henry’s story reminded me of Citizen Kane, which I saw once in first year. Like him, Kane was shrewd and manipulated the system to join the highest ranks of social class in his time. Casa Loma was Henry’s Xanadu, his glorious palace – Toronto’s Camelot.

You may also recognize my earlier post Neuschwanstein: A Bavarian King’s Dream Come True. King Ludwig’s infatuation with medieval and romantic fantasies materialized into reality thanks to prosperity. So how similar was Casa Loma? Could Henry Pellatt have really been the Charles Foster Kane of Toronto? Ludwig’s doppelganger? Well, I went to go find out.

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The castle’s doors are open for all

Casa Loma is a Gothic revival style mansion, museum and historic landmark located in uptown Toronto. It was the largest mansion in Canada and one of the only true castles of North America, with medieval-style architecture and secret passageways harkening to the old days. Its romantic aesthetic couples well with modern-day convenience of the early 20th century.

Born in 1859 to British parents, its owner Henry Pellat was always ambitious during his youth. He pursued a career in commerce in order to continue his family business, Pellat and Pellatt. Meanwhile, a notable man south of the border, by the name of Thomas Edison, was achieving breakthroughs in electric technologies. Henry would later capitalize on this invention by founding the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883, which owned a large monopoly on providing Toronto with electricity. Also known as an avid risk-taker, he purchased hefty stock from Canadian Pacific Railroad which he profited greatly due to immigration to Western Canada. Complementing his financial success was Pellatt’s proud military background, and he was knighted in 1905 for his service in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

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Henry Pellatt (Photo from the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada website)

By 1911, Henry had an income of about $17 million. He was finally ready to build his imaginary home. He commissioned architect E.J. Lennox to design and construct the mansion, which was completed in 1914 with a total cost of $3.5 million. Once ready, Henry wasted no space when it came to interior design. He filled it with priceless artwork from Canada and around the world, including his wartime regalia on display.

Henry and his wife Mary were there for a good time, but not for a long time. Eventually, his source of income started to crumble due to public ownership of electrical utilities. He then attempted land speculation, but the economic realities of WWI quickly defeated any financial hopes, as people were buying war bonds instead of homes. Eventually, Henry was faced with the nightmare of auctioning off his possessions and ultimately selling his dream home. After losing Casa Loma, the Pellatts moved to their farm in King, Ontario. Henry settled for a quiet farm life until his death in 1939.

Since 1933, the property has been under the City of Toronto’s ownership, although currently under lease to Liberty Entertainment Group, a Canadian venue corporation. In addition to being a tourist attraction, Casa Loma hosts several museum exhibits and special events such as live shows, dinners, weddings, and even Halloween escape rooms.

Being a guest at Pellatt’s estate wasn’t cheap. After coughing a hefty $30, we received a royal welcome into the Great Hall. It resembled an English lord’s manor, although modest in comparison to Lord Grantham’s. My eyes darted up to the high ceilings, chandeliers, dark wooden beams, and Canada’s provincial flags all draped in an orderly fashion. Towards the west side, a crest with a knight in plate armour hangs above an archway, welcoming guests to the dining hall. A grand organ normally sits behind the crest with its metal pipes towering over the Great Hall. But during our visit, it was stored away, dusty and disassembled for possible repairs.

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The Great Hall, taken from the 2nd floor

The Library occupied the castle’s East Wing, an open unfurnished room with bright chandeliers, shiny oak floors and two walls entirely covered by bookshelves behind glass. Back in the day, the Pellatts used the Library to entertain close friends and relatives. It was fully decked out with elaborate furniture from couches, custom-made rugs, to porcelain decorations and bookcases that held up to 10,000 volumes. I struggled to take a proper photo without flash to offset the outside glare and the chandelier lighting, so this was my best edit. Luckily, we caught this room just in time before a wedding party arrived.

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Casa Loma’s Library

Through another doorway from the Library was Henry’s Study. It was a typical Edwardian businessman’s office, with an exact copy of Napoleon’s writing desk. Enclosed with mahogany panels, the room conceals two secret passageways leading to hidden staircases on either side of the fireplace. The left directed visitors to the sleeping quarters, and the right led to the basement where all electrical systems were housed.

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Henry’s study (due to lighting restrictions, I couldn’t get a picture, so this shot is from Casa Loma’s official website – again still learning!)

I later learned that Casa Loma has a Conservatory, a beautiful and bright room filled with magnificent gardens, wall-to-wall windows, and marble floors. Sadly, we couldn’t access this room due to wedding photographs, and we only caught a glimpse from the hallway. From the Study, we snuck upstairs to the 2nd floor through one of many secret passageways.

On the second floor, we stumbled into Lady Mary Pellatt’s enviable suite and bedroom. In fact, hers was substantially larger than her husband’s. It was often the norm during this time for upper-class couples to keep individual bedrooms. And being a light sleeper who barely withstands my own partner’s tossing and snoring, I could relate to Mary. Although, I certainly don’t have the funds for a room as exquisite as hers.

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Mary Pellatt’s suite

Her bedroom had walls made of Wedgewood blue with a large sitting room, solarium, bathroom, and a wardrobe. This suite was her private area where she could entertain guests sans the company of men. Decked in commoner attire, I felt like a stranger despite a welcoming atmosphere. Artifacts from the Girl Guides of Canada – uniforms, photographs, and badges – were on display behind glass. Mary was also a strong supporter of the Girl Guides, and once held the title of Chief Commissioner. And much like her husband, she was indubitably a connoisseur of fine art.

Next was Henry’s bedroom. It was smaller in size but just as opulent, with the walls entirely covered by wooden panels. My eyes were instantly drawn to the strange, exotic features, notably the tiger floor rug adjacent to his bed. The bed itself was presumably just five feet in length, hinting at preconceived notions of the short statures of upper-class folk long ago.

Henry’s bathroom was supposedly modern for its time because it was unusual for people to own a fully equipped bathroom. With true showmanship for 20th-century technology and affluence, his shower had six sprays, all controlled by different faucets.

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Sir Pellatt’s suite: A stripey carpet and a stumpy bed

Also on the 2nd floor were additional guest suites. The regal Windsor Room was situated across the hall on the south side. Here, the Pellatts hoped one day to host the Royal Family. To my knowledge, they never did. I navigated through more guest rooms, servants’ quarters, and even a “Round Room” built simply to permeate the space beneath the towers.

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The Windsor Room

We took the stairs up to the 3rd floor and strolled through a long corridor adorned with portraits neatly regimented on both walls. This floor was also an exhibit for the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, with artifacts showcasing all major conflicts they served from the 1866 Fenian Raids to Afghanistan. Henry was incredibly proud of his service in the Queen’s Own Rifles and also dreamed of opening his own military museum. The City of Toronto made that happen for him.

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The Group of Seven Room also sits on the 3rd floor. It honoured seven infamous Canadian landscape artists between the years of 1920 and 1933. Their paintings populate the walls from all sides.

On either end of the corridor were two identical turrets with a cramped spiral staircase to the top. For any claustrophobe or bathmophobe (fear of stairs – yes I Googled it), I wouldn’t recommend. The stairs were too narrow to pass both ways, so the guests had to coordinate the flow of traffic.

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I spotted a ghost between the towers…

The highest tower with the circular enclosed roof was the Scottish Tower. We couldn’t go outside but captured some panoramic shots through the dusty window slits. Inside the tower, ratty old chests and clutter lay scattered about, like your grandmother’s attic. Perhaps it was set up for upcoming Halloween festivities, or for historic charm.

After a dizzying decline, we crossed into the Norman Tower. Twisted tree branches entwine the rafters above and adorned with leaves, resembling a fantasy movie set. At first, I assumed this was an homage to Henry’s aestheticism, but soon realized it was a sneak preview for Imagine Dragons (a kids’ fairy-tale program, not the band).

The Norman Tower’s roof was open, allowing a fresh breeze to relieve us from the stuffy indoors. From here, I could also see my house – quite literally, my apartment was in plain view facing south.

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Views of the city from the Norman Tower. My apartment is likely somewhere to the left

We descended towards the first floor, and before exiting, we stepped through the Great Hall’s south doors to the gardens. Renovated by the Garden Club of Toronto, it spans five acres with a fountain in the middle, shadowed by the CN Tower directly behind. Sculptures and perennials surround the fountain and a gazebo on the lower level. We stayed afar as to avoid disrupting the wedding.

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The Gardens from the upper level, outdoors. Not pictured to the left – an elegant wedding party! The Pellatts would have certainly held a Casa Loma Royal Wedding to the utmost regard.
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Looking out the windows to the north side

Our very last room was the dining quarters, which is now an upscale steakhouse. We took a peek and felt tempted, but our coffers weren’t quite as sophisticated as the company that Henry entertained.

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Casa Loma’s restaurant is now called The BlueBlood Steakhouse (a rather cacophonous name for a “regal” themed steakhouse). The renovated spot also boasts some heirloom antiques and modern artwork from Warhol to Dali.

After visiting, I considered Casa Loma’s reputation and the magnitude of criticism this mansion may have received. According to Judith Robinson, who wrote an article for The Globe in 1931, Casa Loma “should be a humourous commentary on the state of civilization in this city.” Robinson goes further to decry that it “should be stuffed and mounted like a five-legged elephant.” Another article from the Niagara Times, 1930 chides, “The house has become one of the showplaces of the City, and sightseers are not considered to have completed their rounds until they visit what is sometimes referred to as Pellatt’s Folly.”

Yet, on the very same plaque where I read those quotes, the exhibit presents an interesting question: What if Casa Loma had been built in America instead? This mansion would be a shack compared to the likes of the Vanderbilts’. Perhaps the principles of the American Dream which had significant influence across the border, coupled with the superlative wealth of America’s upper class, explain the differences in opinion.

But despite its critics, Henry Pellatt’s overall intent for Casa Loma to be a functional home, not a real “castle,” per se. There were more stylistic similarities to English Gothic revival houses with old, Elizabethan style features in place. What truly makes Casa Loma an architectural anomaly is the combination of antique attributes and modern practicalities, such as electrified lighting systems and having the very first elevator inside a house (in Canada). The striking parallels to Neuschwanstein Castle in terms of infrastructure and sheer will are quite pronounced.

One cannot separate the mansion from the mogul. My preconceptions about a “Toronto Citizen Kane” had some truth, but it was also misguided. Nevertheless, I could draw one major similarity: Both were men who rose up to immense prosperity, sailing atop the waves of capitalism. Through wealth comes the acquisition of extravagant things to an unprecedented level. Eventually, their boats couldn’t sustain the weight of debt and began to sink. Even the richest weren’t immune to the economic hardships of the early 20th century.

Much of Henry’s rivals often criticized him and accused him of being a “robber baron.” Rumours surfaced that his possessions, which he later auctioned, were deemed as “fakes.’ They arguably still had some value, however, as revivals of historical artifacts. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, 1936, Henry stated, “Yes, I had lots of money, and I spent lots, perhaps some say foolishly, but then there are some who never do have a [word] to beautiful things. They think they don’t matter.”

I discovered there is more to Henry’s legacy than simply just being rich. For the most part, he was well-liked by society (although I’m unsure if I can speak for the lower class). He was also considered a visionary, a man larger than life who embraced the new technologies for Toronto and invested in them where few saw possibilities. He was a benefactor of numerous charities, such as the St. John Ambulance (of which he was a founder), the Victorian Order of Nurses and the National Choir. Last but certainly not least, Henry was a highly respected veteran within the Queen’s Own Rifles, as much as he was proud of his military history.

Understandably, many would consider Casa Loma an exemplification of dangerous overindulgence. However, I would argue that its relationship with its surrounding urban landscape changes throughout time along with the city itself, is the most interesting part. Opinions about Casa Loma and the Pellatts differ depending on time period, background and social and economic status. Would my own viewpoint change had I lived during its castle’s early years? Perhaps I’d have more disdain, but who knows.

What also struck me was reading tidbits of Henry’s life told by those who may have never met him, similar to the fictional biography of Charles Foster Kane. If we collected and demonstrated more personal testimony, would that affect Casa Loma’s legacy? His legacy?

Evidently, it’s a unique part of Toronto’s past. And also, a very expensive place to get married.

*Historical info is taken either from Casa Loma on-site, or from its website.

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