The Casa Loma neighbourhood is a highly desirable Toronto quarter named after its famous castle, which was built in the early part of the last century for what was then a staggering $3.5 million. Residents live in the shadow of this castle atop the Avenue Hill road, surrounded by ravines, large mature trees, joggers and luxury cars – a somewhat incongruous setting, considering that the neighbourhood is located so close to downtown Toronto. Nestled on the summit of the Hill, and surrounded by thickly wooded ravines and parkland, this residential enclave looks and feels like a beautiful enchanted forest from a storybook, with the castle’s striking silhouette affording a romantic backdrop to this upmarket Toronto neighbourhood.
Though the celebrated castle was lost to the city by its heavily debt-laden owner, Sir Henry Pellatt, only a decade after it was built, Casa Loma’s notoriety led to a huge boom in the area, with many wealthy residents being inspired to move in and characterize the present neighbourhood.
Casa Loma is bounded on the north by Spadina Road and Lonsdale Road, on the east by Avenue Road, on the south by the railway tracks and Dupont Street, and on the west by Bathurst Street. St. Clair Avenue runs through the northern part of the neighbourhood, providing wonderful shopping and public transit access courtesy of the St. Clair streetcar route traveling to St. Clair West subway station.
Casa Loma is a major Toronto tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors each year who are surprised to find a castle in the middle of the city! Though the castle is over a century old, it hasn’t lost its charm. The secret passageways, breathtaking towers, grand staircase, 800-foot tunnel and rich period furnishings continue to excite all ages when the castle is open for tours from May to October. Year-round, glimpses of the stables and five-acre gardens, as well as the imposing exterior of the castle, attract visitors and locals to take pictures and wonder what life used to be like for those who had attained the heights of the Canadian establishment.
The brainchild of Canadian financier and stockbroker Sir Henry Pellatt, who wished to fulfill his childhood wish for a castle, Casa Loma was designed by architect E.J. Lennox and took three years, 300 men and $3.5 million to complete. It featured such modern marvels as state of the art plumbing and electricity, as well as being a feat of mediaeval architecture and style. Lady Pellatt, Sir Henry’s ailing wife, enjoyed entertaining visitors there, including the Girl Guides who were often feted in the castle’s sweeping gardens. After World War One, Sir Pellatt lost his fortune due to personal tragedies sparked by pride, financial miscalculations and government restrictions, and was forced to auction off his prized possessions including his glorious “castle on the hill”, to pay off his debts. For years the stately house sat unoccupied while the city considered proposals to turn it into a museum, high school, art gallery or veteran’s home. Finally in 1937, the Kiwanis Club of West Toronto suggested turning Casa Loma into a tourist attraction. Today, Casa Loma is owned by the City of Toronto and is still operated by the Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma.
A visit to Casa Loma involves something like time travel – stepping back in time to a period of unmatched European elegance and splendour. Known as Canada’s foremost castle, the stunning edifice is defined by an Italian stained glass dome. Currently visitors will find a $1.00 per person Capital Improvement Surcharge included in the admission price that is being dedicated to the restoration of the interior, decor and furnishings, and exhibits of Casa Loma.
With its 60′ high ceiling, the Great Hall is a focal point of the castle, with sculpted figures adorning the pillars. It is home to Canada’s largest Wurlitzer pipe organ, originally built for Shea’s Hippodrome on Bay Street in 1922 and
used to accompany silent films – today, it is presented in a series of public musical concerts. Other impressive rooms include the library, with oak floors in a herringbone pattern specifically designed to create different shadings from each end of the room; the formal dining room, lined with circassian walnut; the Conservatory, with Italian marble floor and Ontario marble side panels, and clever steam pipes to keep the flower beds warm in the winter; and the serving room, which contains original Pellatt furniture. The castle has a total of 98 rooms including specially designated rooms for smoking and cards, billiards, rifles, and a wine cellar connected to Sir Pellatt’s suite by a secret passage. The meticulous attention to detail applied even to the hallways: Peacock Alley was modelled after a passageway in Windsor Castle, with oak
walls and a teakwood floor.
The breathtaking beauty continues outside. In the stables, the horse stalls are constructed of mahogany while the floors are covered with Spanish tiles. Renovated by the Garden Club of Toronto, the five acres surrounding the castle feature formal perennial borders, sculptures and fountains, while the wooded hillside itself showcases wild flowers and ferns plus dramatic rhododendrons and decorative grasses. The Secret Garden gets its name from the perimeter fieldstone walls and cedar hedge that surround it. The whole area has a cottage garden feel due to the mix of shrubs, perennials and lush roses cascading down from the Arbour.
After Sir Henry Pellatt left Casa Loma, it sat vacant while proposals were considered for its future use. In 1925, the architect William Sparling put forward a proposal to convert the house to a luxury hotel. He was granted a long-term lease, and began the process of completing the Great Hall and the Billiard Room, areas that Sir Henry had never himself finished. He 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. These wings, costing approximately $1 million, were never built: a New York syndicate offered to purchase the Castle in 1928, but the deal was never completed and the hotel failed in 1929.
During the late 1920s, Casa Loma was also a popular nightspot showcasing the new big band sound. With the onset of the Depression, the castle sat vacant until 1933, when the City took the property for back taxes. Because none of the possible plans for use (including a proposal to create a permanent residence for the Dionne quintuplets!) proved feasible, the City considered demolishing the castle, until, in 1937, Casa Loma opened to the public after extensive refurbishment by The Kiwanis Club.
Today Casa Loma is financially self-sufficient and contributes close to $1 million annually to the City in license fees and taxes. Net proceeds from the operation of Casa Loma support a wide range of the Kiwanis Club’s charitable works.
Under the careful stewardship of the Club and its professional staff, the castle remains one of Toronto’s top ten tourist attractions and hospitality venues, with hundreds of thousands of year-round visitors touring the sprawling building and gardens. A beautiful backdrop for special occasions, the castle plays host to hundreds of functions, and its unique architecture has also made it a highly desirable location for film, television and photography shoots.
Inside Casa Loma
A neighbourhood pocket bordered by the Annex to the south and Forest Hill to the north, Casa Loma has a high population of baby boomers and seniors, with statistically fewer visible minorities than the city average. A majority of the neighbourhood’s immigrants moved to the area prior to 1980, and most of these are English speaking, of European descent.
The natural beauty afforded by the escarpment, which was forested until development began in the early 1900’s, made it a popular location for a diverse range of mansions along Spadina which date from approximately 1890 to 1920. Most of Casa Loma’s homes were built between 1905 and 1940, and the housing stock includes a mix of large Tudor, Georgian, Edwardian, and English Cottage style homes, as well as some recent luxury condo high rises along Avenue Road and townhomes on Spadina. Austin Terrace, Warren Road, Popular Plains and Russell Hill – all streets to emerge when the lands attached to the castle were subdivided – display some of the most impressive homes in the city. Long, winding drives shield some homes from prying eyes; pristine landscaping is common. The views from the southern end of the neighbourhood make it a perfect place for strolling. In 2007, the average sale price for a Casa Loma home was $3,163,000.
Despite the relatively insulated feel of the neighbourhood, motorists have easy access into downtown via Bathurst, Spadina, Avenue Road, and Yonge Street; the latter two streets are fast routes to the 401. The community is served by six elementary schools, three public high schools, three private schools, and a public library. De La Salle College is nearby on Avenue Road, one of the George Brown College campuses is located right at Davenport, and St Michael’s College is around the corner at Bathurst & St. Clair. Locals do much of their daily shopping at the stores near that busy intersection, with gourmet dining and boutique shopping available in Forest Hill Village (Spadina Road, north of St. Clair), at Davenport & Avenue Road, or in the Bloor-Yorkville shopping district. Dupont Street, forming Casa Loma’s southern boundary, has great shopping and dining from Christie Street (Loblaws, Blockbuster Video) to Avenue Road, with everything from Shoppers Drug Mart, the Beer Store and the LCBO to holistic health clinics, a raw food restaurant, a world class patisserie (Frangipani), People’s for burgers, and specialty shops and services catering to pets, families, and busy professionals.
The community is bisected by the Beltline Trail in the Nordheimer Ravine, a virtual forest of mature oak and maple trees which links from Casa Loma to the foot of the Allen Expressway and then back again to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Some of the houses on the south side of Lyndhurst Court enjoy a spectacular view of Toronto’s skyline and Lake Ontario. The community’s largest park is the attractive Sir Winston Churchill Park at Spadina and St. Clair, which boasts with ten tennis courts, a playground, long running track and wooded scrublands, and a connection to the Beltline Trail. Culturally, the neighbourhood is enriched by such bastions as the Tarragon Theatre, which has premiered live theatre for nearly 40 years.
Residents enjoy such neighbourhood hot spots as the Corner House Restaurant, a continental spot on Davenport just east of Spadina that makes “most romantic” lists every year ($$1/2). Scaramouche is set on the side of the hill with a great view to the south, and has been a popular fine dining spot for Forest Hill and Rosedale residents for over 20 years ($$$). Those with a penchant for architecture and history will appreciate the close proximity to Spadina House, Casa Loma’s older, more humble cousin; the first house to grace this area, it was built in 1866 for financier James Austen and improved throughout the Edwardian era. Today it is a city-owned museum and a treasure trove of Victorian, Arts and Crafts and even deco styles. Outside, the Spadina Museum is a beautifully constructed house sitting on a six-acre south lawn, which borders an elaborate vegetable garden, apple orchard and grape arbor, and runs right up to the edge of the Davenport escarpment (it is accessed from the street by an extremely long outdoor staircase). These calming, pretty grounds are often rented for wedding photos. Inside, there is a gift shop selling handmade products in quaint old fashioned packaging, with guided tours of the house being conducted regularly as well as special seasonal festivities. The museum itself is off-limits for parties due to the many precious artifacts, but the un-restored rooms are available to rent and can be catered for gatherings.