Kiwanis save ‘Chateau Pellatt’

A couple of years back I was asked to accompany a group of women from the States as they toured the city with a stopover at Casa Loma. When I broached the subject of how much the visitors knew about our city prior to their visit, one lady volunteered that all she knew about Toronto was that we had a baseball team called the Blue Jays (our two World Series victories were still fresh in all our memories) and that we also had a castle. She even knew its name.

The dream of industrialist/financier Sir Henry Pellatt, Casa Loma, which some describe as a combination of Scottish battlement and French chateau architecture (while others suggest it’s more 20th Century Fox than anything), was built by Sir Henry in this century’s early teens. The cost? A then whopping $1.7 million by 1913 dollar standards. Today the castle is estimated to be worth more than $36 million with the nearby stables adding another $5.4 million.

Of course, the most frequent question asked by visitors to Casa Loma is why in the world would anyone build it in the first place? To fully understand the answer, one would have to know a bit about Sir Henry. In addition to his other traits, he was perhaps the world’s grtest monarchist and as such was concerned that should his beloved king and queen decide to visit his hometown, they must have a proper place to stay. No high-class hotels or pseudomansions for them. They’d stay in a castle, his castle, Casa Loma. Unfortunately for Sir Henry, royalty never had the opportunity to stay at the Pellatt residence.

In fact, even the Pellatt’s stay wasn’t all that long. Dinged by a couple of financial setbacks followed by the city’s determination to have the castle undergo something called market value reassessment resulting in the property tax bill skyrocketing from $50,000 in 1912 to $250,000 in 1913, Sir Henry reluctantly abandoned his abode, a place some had laughingly dubbed “Chateau Pellatt”.

As a result of non-payment of property taxes, ownership of the castle reverted to the city. Subsequently, a number of possible uses for the site were explored, including the home of a relocated Hospital for Sick Children (at the time the hospital was on College Street at Elizabeth); Mary Pickford’s new Canadian residence; a museum; and, the CPR considered it, briefly, as a grand railway station feeding passengers to its nearby rail line. Toronto architect William Sparling even tried operating the castle as a hotel complete with a musical group for the visitors’ dining and dancing pleasure. Unfortunately, that project also failed and again the castle’s massive doors swung shut. Incidentally, the musical group eventually become famous as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. With no real answer to the problem in 1934 city politician George Ramsden was trying to talk council into requesting a demolition permit to level the building. That would certainly end the dilemma.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the permit was never issued. Instead, the Kiwanis Club of West Toronto requested that it be given the authority to operate the castle as a tourist attraction. The club’s proposition was approved and on July 10, 1937 Casa Loma re-opened to the public with the understanding that a portion of the income from admission and rental fees be turned over to the city and the remainder earmarked for various charitable purposes. In addition, the club pays those ever-present property taxes.

Sixty years later, Kiwanis continues to operate Casa Loma on a financially self-sufficient basis without government grants or subsidies. In fact, during the period 1992-1996 the club paid the city nearly $274,000 in property taxes, turned over another $3.3 million to the municipality in licensing fees while donating a further $1.5 million to a variety of charities.

A good deal for all concerned.