Hello From Toronto Discovering Casa Loma And Sir Henry Pellatt The Fascinating Man Behind Toronto's Castle

Hello From Toronto Discovering Casa Loma And Sir Henry Pellatt The
Fascinating Man Behind Toronto's Castle

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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