TORONTO – I reach the top of the hill on the crooked street and Casa Loma’s regal turrets come into full view.
I feel as if I’m Cinderella arriving for the ball. The forest of glass and steel towers that lined the route leading to this “castle” perched like a crown on the highest point in the city have been replaced by a fairytale garden filled with lush lawns, mighty old oak trees and sweet-smelling flowers.
That’s the power Casa Loma has over visitors — and it’s been that way ever since the grand home built by Sir Henry Pellatt became a museum in 1937.
Now Toronto’s third most visited tourist attraction (after the Eaton Centre and the CN Tower) Casa Loma brings out the romantic in everyone, especially young women who fantasize about dressing up for one of the grand balls held here or dream about getting married in its delightful gardens.
But to arrange a wedding ceremony at Casa Loma you have to make a reservation — two years in advance. An attendant tells me one woman recently booked the castle for her wedding two years from now... and she doesn’t even have a boyfriend yet!
Left: The rooms remind visitors of more gentile times in Toronto. Right: Grand staircases abound in this mighty mansion built in 1911.
Casa Loma hosts about 130 weddings annually and about 240 corporate and media events. It’s a favourite film location, with movies such as X-Men and Chicago being filmed here.
As I pass under the home’s grand entrance, I’m struck by the smell of rich wood and the opulence of this stately mansion, which was built by Pellatt between 1911-1914.
While Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House) is one of the city’s most treasured landmarks, few people, even Torontonians, know the grand home houses some bad memories.
Sir Henry, a lover of medieval architecture as a youngster, made enough money from his railway and hydro investments to build his “family home” in the design of the great European castles he so admired in his youth.
He even hired renowned architect Edward J. Lennox to shape his 98-room dream home in a Gothic Revival style and spent $3.5 million of his fortune to see the project completed.
It took 300 workers three years to build a house that would need 40 servants to keep it clean. The final result was a masterpiece.
But Sir Henry’s dream home quickly became a house of horrors. Thanks to the outbreak of World War I and the stock market crash of 1929 which brought on the Great Depression, Pellatt’s fortunes quickly vanished and the family was forced to abandon Casa Loma in 1932, just 10 years after moving in.
It operated as a hotel for a while, and finally became a museum in 1937.
I wander the halls of the great house, poking my head into rooms that display the hand-carved furniture the family originally bought. Some rooms are empty; Sir Henry ran out of money to decorate them all.
Left: The lovely gardens and grounds are a joy to wander. Right: The grand home still exhibits great dignity and charm.
The three-storey home’s library, dining hall, watch tower, Pellatt’s private office, swimming pool and a secret passage keep me spellbound for hours.
Lady Pellatt’s room is every little girl’s dream — accented in pinks and blues with the walls painted in Lady Pellatt’s favourite colour, Wedgwood blue. Pixie light streams through a board window; a rose tea set sits on a trolley next to a comfy couch waiting for the lady of the house to pour her guests a cup. It’s all so charming.
The entrance to wheelchair-bound Lady Pellatt’s bathroom was made much wider to compensate for the device and the mansion even has an elevator — the first private home in the city to offer such a luxury.
Casa Loma invites you to let your imagination run wild: In the grand library hall, I imagine the family gathered around the fireplace while an author reads from one of his just-published works. In the banquet hall, I can almost hear the clatter of fine crystal, china and silverware. In the ballroom, I envision men in tails leading women in princess gowns around the dance floor while magical music fills the room.
The old saying “one man’s home is another man’s castle” must have been written after Casa Loma was built.
- Casa Loma can be reached by car or by subway - exit at St. Clair West station.
- Once inside, you can borrow a headphone and take a self-guided media-tour which tells the castle’s historic story and details what you are seeing.
- There’s a gift shop and a small restaurant on the premises.
- Activities are held year-round at Casa Loma — especially good are the ones held at Christmas and Halloween.
- Casa Loma is open daily (except Christmas Day) between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. — last admission is 4 p.m.
- Admission is $20 for adults.
- Visit www.casaloma.org
for more details.