Casa Loma: A White Elephant Hits the Jackpot

FRANK CROFT May 1 1950

Casa Loma: A White Elephant Hits the Jackpot

FRANK CROFT May 1 1950

A TWO-MILLION-DOLLAR pile of masonry, marble and mahogany called Casa Loma stands on the crest of a sharp rise of ground in Toronto’s north-central residential section. A stranger coming on it unexpectedly might think a time machine had slipped a few cogs and thrown him back into the Middle Ages.

The millionaire who built it couldn’t maintain it. The wealthy New York syndicate which tried to run it as a luxury apartment hotel flopped within six months. The city which was forced to take it over impotently watched the unpaid tax bill mount to six figures. Then the Kiwanis Club of West Toronto took charge and developed it into one of the leading tourist attractions in Canada, and a major philanthropic project.

Now the castellated towers, great halls, dungeons and secret stairways no longer make up Canada’s most attractive white elephant. Casa Loma since 1937 has become big business.

At the end of 1949 a grand total of 1,854,919 visitors (sight-seers and dancers) had paid for admission to Casa Loma; 1950 should see the figure top 2 millions. These people come from every province and state on the continent and from every nation in the United Nations. Toronto got an $18,000 cut (25%) from last year’s admission money, bringing the city’s total take in 12 years up to nearly $125,000.

TURRETS don’t draw a Torontonian glance but a tourist looks for knights in armor.

The Kiwanians now hold a 21-year lease on the castle granted by the city. They administer and run the show with a permanent staff of seven and 50 temporary helpers. The cash they’ve collected supports a giant philanthropic endeavor ranging from a summer camp for 500 boys to buying pigs for country youngsters.

Casa Loma (“House on the Hill”) was built between 1911 and 1913 by Major-General Sir Henry M. Pellatt, C.V.O., D.C.L., V.D. It cost twice as much as the New York mansion Andrew Carnegie had completed a few years earlier and was half as big again.

When Henry Pellatt was still in knee pants he decided to make a lot of money, build a huge castle and entertain lots of people. He straightway proceeded to make a lot of money, build a huge castle and entertain lots of people. He died in 1939.

Leaving Upper Canada College when he was 15, Henry went to work for his father’s brokerage firm. As soon as his signature carried legal weight he organized the Toronto Electric Light Co., thus being the first man to bring hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls to Toronto. From then on it was merely a matter of carting the stuff to the bank. He was a millionaire at 30. When the plans for Casa Loma were drawn in 1910 he was reported worth $17 millions.

PELLATT: For his high-stepping horses, Persian rugs.

Three events of his minority days show the singleness of purpose which governed his life. In 1876, the year after he left school, he joined Canada’s second oldest militia unit, the Queen’s Own Rifles, as a private; he told the quartermaster-sergeant as his kit and uniform were handed to him that he expected to command the regiment one day. He was O.C. from 1901 to 1921.

Two years after joining the militia Pellatt senior spoke to Henry about leaving the office an hour before quitting time during the summer. The boy explained that he was training to beat the world’s record for the one-mile run, and that when he had done so he would devote all his time to business. The following year he won the one-mile championship of North America, although he didn’t set a record. He put away his running gear and never again tried to beat the office whistle.

At 20 he decided it was time to start planning his castle. He bought the first piece of furniture for it, a French oak desk of the Emperor period. During the next 30 years he continued to buy furniture and paintings for the castle. On numerous trips to Europe he sketched the more imposing features of castles he inspected there. This architectural jumble he handed to his architect in 1910. The result is that although Casa Loma is French Baronial in theme, certain towers and wings betray Scottish, English, Italian and Rhenish parentage.

Rescued by Kiwanis from a crumbling doom, Sir Henry Pellatt’s $2 million Casa Loma now reaps a rich harvest from sight-seers for underprivileged children.

RARE WINES waited here for Pellatt’s palate. And in the kitchens an oven to roast an ox.

Besides its 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, 25 fireplaces and swimming pool, the castle was equipped with three bowling alleys and the finest indoor rifle range in the world. The cheapest mantelpiece in the place cost $1,500 and there are one or two Italian marble numbers which cost $10,000 each. The huge conservatory is lined with marble, that on the south wall being chosen for a horizontal wavy grain to represent the Atlantic and that on the south wall a perpendicular grain suggestive of mountains to represent the Rockies, thus depicting a Canada-wide theme. The conservatory is entered by two $14,000 bronze doors.

The flooring throughout the castle is as impressive as any other feature. The 80 ft. by 80 ft. great hall is floored with eight-inch-wide oak planks set in parquet style; the 60 ft. by 70 ft. dining room is also floored with oak, set in herringbone fashion. But the 230-ft.long main corridor, which is a copy of Windsor Castle’s Peacock Alley, has a floor which will last until the lizards take over. On an 18-inch concrete base are laid alternate planks of teak and mahogany, two and a half inches thick. No nails are used, the timbers being held by mahogany pegs and dovetails. Oak paneling covers the alley walls, sweeping up to a groined ceiling.

One of the west rooms is paneled with English oak. European wood carvers spent two years in this room creating one of the most beautiful panel designs in existence.

Sir Henry’s hospitality was extended to many sections of society. Three thousand guests attended one of his famous parties. But he most enjoyed having his regiment drop in for the week end. The basement barracks had ample room for the 1,000 or so men and noncoms, officers were quartered in the 21 hall and tower suites. The main kitchen was large enough to feed all troops at once; besides the ordinary ovens there is one large enough to take an ox whole.

VARSITY students guide the awed rubbernecks up a secret stair to the tune of a suave spiel.

When the Queen’s Own held high carnival at Casa Loma the place had the atmosphere of a medieval keep, the jolly yeomanry safe inside, ready to stand off any baron in the land.

In building his castle Pellatt did not forget to throw in a couple of dungeons and a sliding panel in one of the mahogany-paneled rooms opening onto a secret stairway. If it had not been for the rise of land on which the castle is built it is likely there would have been a moat, complete with drawbridge. 

Medieval grandeur did not interfere with 20th-century comfort. Except for a few tower rooms Casa Loma is heated with a thermostatically controlled steam heat plant. Fifty two phones were scattered through the building. And there was elevator service.

The library had the first indirect lighting system of its size in North America. So much gold and silver plating was spread over bathroom fixtures that a guest being given a suite with mere nickel plating could justifiably feel insulted.

An underground passage a quarter of a mile long leads to the stables, which were thrown up for a paltry $250,000. Persian runners were placed on the tile floors; the stalls are Spanish mahogany; and all fittings are of solid brass. In the days when the stables contained some of the most expensive horseflesh in the world each animal’s name was set in letters of 18-carat gold at the head of its stall. No. 1 stall was occupied by Prince, a magnificent animal which King George V once offered to buy. It must have been a painful decision for one so loyal to the Crown, yet so devoted to his horse, as Sir Henry. The King, a horse lover, understood Pellatt’s dilemma and withdrew the offer.

Prince did not live at Casa Loma long. He was brought down with a malady which resulted in the loss of his teeth. A set of false teeth were made but they never worked satisfactorily. A liquid diet was then concocted but, under the anxious eyes of his owner, vets and grooms, Prince died of starvation in the midst of plenty.

It has generally been thought that in building Casa Loma Pellatt bit off more than he could chew—that he was crushed beneath the weight of his towering ambition. This was not the case. He could not foresee the huge increase in living costs which World War I and the postwar years were to bring. A fixed income which could support such a place in 1913 became, inadequate soon after.

Taxes Were $1,000 a Month

The taxes on the property were $630 a year when the castle was still in the blueprint stage. When the Pellatts moved in they were 10 times that amount and by the early 20’s were $1,000 a month. In the same period his fuel bill jumped $15,000 a year and the servants’ payroll reached $22,030 from an original $9,000.

This was too much even for Sir Henry. Rather than dip into his capital he called in the auctioneer. In 1924 the contents of the Wedgwood and Louis XV bedrooms, the Napoleon drawing-room, the Empire and Georgian furniture, the Bohemian glass and Sèvres girandoles, and a few carloads of similar pieces went under the hammer. The furniture and accessories at that time were reported to be worth from $500,000 to $750,000; all but a few items which Pellatt withheld from sale brought only $150,000.

Sir Henry moved to his country estate near King, Ont., and still had the regiment out for week ends. He never lived at Casa Loma again. He continued to pay the taxes until 1923, when he gave up even that costly connection with his castle.

Late in 1929 he gave a New York syndicate a short lease on Casa Loma. The syndicate spent nearly $200,000 converting it into a luxury apartment hotel. It might have been a good idea in normal times, but there was a depression just around the corner. The head chef, who was to be paid $10,000 a year, came to work in a top hat and a chauffeur-driven Packard. Few of the guests could travel the pace set by the hired help. The venture lasted less than six months.

For the next few years Toronto watched the tax bill mount by annual gobs of $12,000 while What To Do With Casa Loma became a popular game. To convert it into a hospital, museum, railway station or apartment building were among the comparatively rational suggestions made by private citizens, the Press and civic … seekers at election times. Among the more wild-eyed suggestions were that it become a Canadian Vatican, un Orange Lodge, a millionaires’ morgue, a home for the Dionne quints, or a refuge for broken-down writers, artists and musicians. The noted Canadian artist, John Russell, who made the latter suggestion, explained simply, “They need something like that.”

In 1933 Toronto City Council decided that the city would have to take over Casa Loma; the accumulated taxes were $52,000. As soon as the castle became city property the councilors came up with a suggestion which they felt would solve the problem once and for all. Wreck it!

Wrecking companies reported that Casa Loma was so solidly built it would cost much more to tear it down than could be realized from the sale of the pieces. With moist brows the city fathers came up with a second, and surely the final, solution.

Blow it up!

It could be dynamited all right, the experts replied, but in doing so the walls of all nearby buildings would be blown in and every pane of glass in the west end of the city would be shattered.

From his country home Sir Henry chuckled, “You can’t burn it down, either. It’s fireproof!”

It was reported from Hollywood i that Mary Pickford might shoot a historical film at the castle. A New York report had it that Father Divine would pay half a million for the place and turn it into “Heaven.”

Everything But a Rattling Ghost

At about this time radio commentator Claire Wallace decided that the Casa Loma story should be dusted off. As she described the building and told some of its history a listener in West Toronto, William Bothwell, started getting ideas. Bothwell is a member of the West Toronto Kiwanis Club. When Miss Wallace signed off Bothwell I got on the phone with other members I and sounded them out on his scheme. They were for it.

A club delegation waited on the next meeting of the Board of Control. They explained that if the city would allow the Kiwanis Club to take over Casa Loma and operate it as a tourist attraction the club would bear all operating costs, pay the city a rental of 25% of the gross take, and apply all net proceeds to the Kiwanis work for underprivileged boys.

The board listened politely. They sent the delegation up to the castle with an official from the property department. “And that,” one controller whispered to another, “will be that.”

The property official swung wide the castle doors and saw the delegation swallowed by the dank interior. He waited outside in the fresh air with the idea of sending in a search party if the Kiwanians did not show up by sundown.

Within a couple of hours the delegation had returned to daylight. Their clothing was covered with dirt, dust and cobwebs. They had trooped through endless corridors, halls and towers encrusted with the dirt of seven years. They noted that many panes of glass were broken, the number later proving to be 25,000 by actual count. Dead pigeons, bats, rats, and other fauna strewed the upper rooms and towers. Their march through the building had disturbed owls and swallows. It seemed that all Casa Loma needed to become a fully fledged medieval ruin was a chain-rattling ghost. They were none too sure that nightfall would not have produced just that.

“It’s a natural,” they cried. “We’ll clean it up. We’ll scrub every room and hall; we’ll paint and varnish every square foot of the place; we’ll make it just as it was when Sir Henry Peilatt lived here. And everybody and his brother will want to pay two bits for a personally conducted tour of the

“What will you use for money?” they were asked.

“We’ll build an ordinary house and raffle it off and use the money to restore Casa Loma,” they replied. And they did.

In the following weeks Toronto was given a demonstration of the grim determination and smooth organization which lies below the boisterous exterior of a service club. Salesmen, doctors, actuaries, teachers, and all other types of men who make up a Kiwanis membership, trooped in and out of the castle armed with brooms, mops, pails and brushes. They made good their boast. The house raffle was a success. After many weeks of toil Casa Loma was again clean and weatherproof.

In May, 1937, Casa Loma was advertised for the first time as a sight-seeing attraction. The club members acted as staff and guides, each having perfected a spiel on the history and noteworthy features of the place. They had their hands full. More than 1,600 people trooped through, leaving a little less than $400 in the till (admission for children was 15 cents). The $100 earmarked for the city was the first revenue Casa Loma had produced for its unwilling owners in eight years. By the end of that first summer 134,241 people had visited the castle, paying a gross of $32,758 of which the city received $8,189. At the end of the season an impressed city granted the club a 10-year lease.

The Kiwanis Casa Loma committee decided to fit the building for year round use. The heating plant was repaired, extra furniture was bought. The library was converted into a dance hall for a three-nights-a-week dance, still a favorite with Toronto’s younger set. Dancers at the castle get no liquor, but refreshments cost no more than at a ball game.

Kiwanis guides have been replaced by five girls from the University of Toronto who now handle the droves of visitors who “oh” and “ah” their way through Casa Loma each year. This year, even though admission prices have advanced to 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, there is no falling off in visitors. A new attraction is the restoration of Sir Henry Pellatt’s bedroom.

She Wanted the King and Queen

The visitors seem to feel they get their money’s worth. So far only one complaint has been received. That was from an American woman who felt she had been gypped because the King and Queen were not in residence. She got her money back.

Sight-seers who become lost from the groups following the guides are a worry to the management. Not long ago a straggler was found in the tunnel leading to the stables. When offered safe conduct back to sunnier regions he flatly refused. It was the first spot he had found in Canada where his hay fever didn’t bother him, and he intended to remain there, sitting on the floor, until closing time. They brought him a chair.

The only time the management was ever threatened with a lawsuit was when a distracted husband stormed into business manager George L. Hardy’s office to cry that his wife had been lost. Searchers were sent in all directions. The hours slid by with no sign of the missing wife and, as her husband became more hysterical in his catalogue of the claims he would press against Casa Loma, Hardy grew worried. He recalled the story of the workman who was lost for four days in Casa Loma at the time it was nearing completion. A few minutes before closing tune the missing woman calmly descended the main stairs. She had remained on one of the towers to take some pictures, become lost, but finally found her own way back.

During World War II Casa Loma’s stables and carriage house were used by Corman Engineering Ltd., Toronto, to assemble ASDIC, the sonic apparatus used by ships to detect U-boats. When the Admiralty gave William C. Corman the job he was stuck for a place with enough head room to take the main gear. Twenty feet clearance was needed. Secrecy was essential. So he chose Casa Loma.

“In those huge rooms we had the space,” he explains. “As for security, any spy or saboteur worth his salt wouldn’t go to a Coney Island shooting gallery to see the latest army rifle, so by the same token no one would bother us in a freak castle crawling with pleasure seekers.”

It was necessary to let two Kiwanians into the secret. When they pointed out that the building was city property and that members of the Board of Control should also be told, Corman’s reply was brief.

“Can’t be done. The city fathers hate the Germans just as much as we do. They’ll forgive us when the war is a $1 padlock was placed on the door closing off the hush-hush section and for four years a group of 20 hand-picked mechanics and engineers assembled ASDIC apparatus in one of the two assembly plants in the British Empire. The workers entered and left the building one at a time; their hours were carefully staggered; the humming of their machines excited no curiosity. Neither spies nor saboteurs ever called.

Even Sir Henry Was Satisfied

Through the revenue it gets from Casa Loma the West Toronto Kiwanis Club’s philanthropies now cover practically everything but the gold cure. The club sends 500 boys to camp at Woodbridge, 20 miles outside Toronto, every summer. It grants four scholarships to students in each of seven West Toronto high schools. It buys artificial limbs, crutches and wheel chairs for handicapped children and adults. It donates milk, bread and clothing regularly to scores of needy families. It has given more than 1,000 pigs—two to a farm—to rural youngsters.

During the war Casa Loma was the source of thousands of dollars sent to the Maritimes for the entertainment and comforts for sailors and embarking soldiers. In 1948 $500 was chipped in for flood victims in British Columbia. A Hamilton TB patient who required special treatment for six months had the bill paid by Casa Loma, and is

Some of the castle’s revenue goes to organized charities such as the Community Chest and such national appeals as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Cancer Fund. Just in case something might be overlooked the club keeps an emergency committee organized to take care of families left destitute by fire or other sudden catastrophes.

In 1938, a year after the club had turned Casa Loma into a going concern, a testimonial luncheon was given Sir Henry Pellatt at the castle. It was the year before his death. Speaking to the club members and civic officials Sir Henry said: “I built Casa Loma

principally as a place where people would enjoy themselves. I learn that your club is now using it for that same purpose, and bringing enjoyment and happiness to countless people who will never see the castle. It could not be put to better use. I am satisfied.”

And so, it seems, is everyone else.