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Casa Loma Revitalization



Casa Loma's identity crisis

Is it time for an image makeover for a tired city landmark?


Saturday, June 4, 2005 Page M1


Seated on a bench in the manicured gardens of Casa Loma, Trelawny Howell recalls her late mother's fond memories of the famous relative who built the "house on the hill."

Sir Henry Pellatt was a larger-than-life Toronto entrepreneur, philanthropist and military enthusiast -- a symbol of the city's expansive ambitions at the dawn of the 20th century.

Ms. Howell says her mother, Peggy Chadwick, only knew the iconic figure as "Uncle Harry," the great-uncle who spoiled the little girl growing up in the early 1920s.

"She adored him and he called her 'girlie,' " says Ms. Howell, a great-grandniece of Sir Henry, who built Casa Loma between 1911 and 1914 but lost the mansion by 1923 blaming high property taxes and financial misfortunes.
Today, Casa Loma ranks as Toronto's third-biggest tourist draw, perched above Davenport Road with a commanding view of the city's downtown and Lake Ontario.

But all is not well with Casa Loma, a heritage jewel that many believe is suffering from an identity crisis. For years, its bread-and-butter function has been as a tourist icon and party venue, catering to a steady stream of school trips, American bus tours, film shoots and special events.

Now some say it's time to liberate the castle from its cliché as "Sir Henry's folly" and reposition it both as an authentic homage to Edwardian-era Toronto and as a modern-day asset for the local community.

Ms. Howell, a self-professed romantic, contends that the current tourist focus pays only lip service to her ancestors' accomplishments. "It's an embarrassment," she charges, citing the care-worn interior, a touristy gift shop in the basement and a vacant hunting lodge across the street.

She is not the only one asking questions about the landmark building's public image.

A volunteer advisory committee, appointed by the city, will hold a public meeting next Tuesday at St. Lawrence Hall, as part of an ongoing review of the future of Casa Loma.

"It is one heck of an impressive building that a lot of people have a sentimental attachment to," says lawyer Ron Kanter, the committee chairman. "We want to try and ensure it is managed, operated and promoted in a way that maximizes its draw to both Torontonians and tourism."

Figuring out the best future for the building will take time, money and likely some testy debate. But architect Charles Hazell, a partner in Taylor, Hazell, is among those convinced that Casa Loma can escape from its recent past.

"It is part of a singular collection of buildings that define our culture," says Mr. Hazell, whose firm has been hired by the city to carry out a long-overdue restoration of the exterior. "People are used to characterizing it in a certain way," he notes, either in superficial terms as a tourist site or as a "problem" building in need of costly upkeep.

Instead, he said, the public should see Casa Loma in a different light. "It should be viewed as a place demonstrating great achievement, huge generosity and a welcoming venue," he said, crediting Sir Henry with commissioning a pseudo-medieval mansion that was a marvel of modern construction at the time, complete with electricity, water works and telephones.

He pioneered the use of Roman Stone, a synthetic building material now being replicated in the restoration work being carried out by Mr. Hazell's company.

But how best to showcase these accomplishments?

One idea under consideration by the advisory committee includes the creation of a heritage district that would raise the profile of Casa Loma and nearby Spadina House and the city of Toronto archives. Another suggestion is to make Casa Loma more accessible to the local community for music concerts and other special events. And others call for a closer connection between the mansion and the neighbourhood.

But changing the building's primary function will require the support of more than just the city, which owns the mansion, the hunting lodge and the nearby turret-topped stables, designed by renowned Toronto architect E.J. Lennox. Although the city is responsible for the upkeep of the crumbling exterior -- now the focus of a $20-million restoration over a seven-year period -- it has licensed the operations of the interior of the 98-room mansion to the Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma since 1937.

In theory, the licence is up for renewal in September, 2006. But city officials and the Kiwanis club are negotiating an extension until December, 2008, pending recommendations from Mr. Kanter's committee.

Ms. Howell, a former Kiwanis member, is highly critical of the service club's current strategy of managing the building. "Here we have this wonderful, romantic place," she says. "It's a shame it has been handcuffed in a monopoly [the Kiwanis licence] without ever being open for others to do something with."

Richard Wozenilek, chairman of the Kiwanis board of trustees, is infuriated at Ms. Howell's criticisms, and says she's ignoring the work his organization has done over the decades to ensure Casa Loma's survival.

Though tourist numbers have not recovered fully from the SARS downturn of 2003, Casa Loma draws between 350,000 and 400,000 visitors a year -- largely school trips and American tourists. Of about $5-million a year in gross revenue, the city receives about $800,000 from its agreement with Kiwanis and reinvests in upkeep to the exterior. After meeting its own costs, including maintenance of the interior, Kiwanis donates about $375,000 a year to charitable groups in the city.

"We're the only heritage building in Canada that makes a profit," says Mr. Wozenilek, who says he's "very dismayed" that his group is not represented on the advisory committee. "We'd like to continue the operation of it."

From his perch high up on the scaffolding at Casa Loma, Mr. Hazell has a unique perspective on its future. The city's commitment to restore the exterior of the building, he contends, will pave the way for the city, the Kiwanis club and the community to figure out how to put Casa Loma back on the map -- as Sir Henry did in the first place.

"He was an extraordinary man of his times. Nothing he did was dull or ordinary," says Mr. Hazell. "It was dramatic, generous and it was Toronto.

"Casa Loma has fallen into characterization and it is our job to pull it out of that."
From the Star, by Hume

Jul. 9, 2005. 01:00 AM

How a Casa crumbles
Dusty effort to restore tourist magnet

Casa Loma long a victim of local neglect


A man's home is his castle; in Sir Henry Pellatt's case, it was Casa Loma.

Built between 1911 and 1914, it was — and still is — the grandest residence ever constructed in Canada. With 98 rooms, it was conceived on a scale that dwarfed everything else around it.

These days Casa Loma is one of Toronto's most popular tourist attractions. Since the city took over Pellatt's castle for non-payment of taxes and handed it over the Kiwanis Club in 1936, little has changed at the "house on the hill" above Spadina Rd.

Now people are beginning to wonder if the Kiwanis Club is the best choice to run Casa Loma. The well-intentioned service club uses its portion of the profit to support charitable projects, but many feel that it has failed to take advantage of the place.

Last year a special committee was formed to examine the situation. It will present its report to City Council this fall.

But from the beginning, Torontonians have been ambivalent, even hostile, about Pellatt, his boundless ambition and his famous folly.

When the business empire he created collapsed in the early 1920s, they smirked and rubbed their hands in glee. After Pellatt was forced to abandon Casa Loma in 1924, the contents of his castle were auctioned off in a manner apparently calculated for maximum humiliation. The sale, described at the time as "the auction of the century," lasted a full four days. Property that Pellatt had collected at a cost of $1.5 million was sold for $131,600. Torontonians couldn't have been more delighted.

What Torontonians chose to overlook was that Pellatt brought them kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

It was Pellatt who pioneered hydroelectric power in Canada and who laid out much of the public transit system what would become the TTC.

But even after Pellatt was gone, his castle remained.

The city had no idea of what to do with it. Various schemes were tried and failed until, finally, in 1936 the Kiwanis Club took over. Already the building was falling into disrepair and the club spent a year whipping the place into shape. When it opened to the public in '37, it was an instant hit.

The deal worked out calls for the Kiwanis to operate the facility and maintain the interior. The city, which owns the building, is responsible for the exterior. Under the terms of the agreement, the city receives 32.5 per cent of the box office and 7 per cent of other revenues — about $1 million annually.

But lately there have been signs of trouble. By the `90s, the exterior of the castle was literally falling apart and there was a feeling it was growing a little tired.

Then, last year, the Casa Loma Advisory Committee (CLAC) was struck.

"The city has viewed Casa Loma simply as a cash cow," says CLAC chair Ron Kanter, a Toronto lawyer and former MPP. "We're saying that the castle has been neglected for too long. There are varying views of what to do but many think it could be better. There are many ways of adding to the tourist experience. The Kiwanis is doing what the city asked them to do, but the city should be asked to do more. The city really should be doing a better job with sites like Casa Loma, but running a historic site is a challenge. We intend to propose changes to improve the operation and draw of the castle."

According to architect Charles Hazell, who has headed the ongoing restoration of the crumbling castle since 1997, the building was in terrible shape when work began seven years ago.

"Some sections are so damaged you can push them over with your hands," observes Hazell, crumbling bits of the exterior with his fingers. "There was danger of imminent collapse. After our first inspection, we put up caution tape immediately. It's amazing nobody was hurt by falling debris."

As Hazell explains, the problems with the exterior go back to the 1980s when, to delay proper maintenance, the city had the outside walls coated and painted over. This had the effect of trapping moisture inside the blocks. It froze, expanded and burst the cast stone to pieces.

"Pellatt's architect, E.J. Lennox, used a product called Roman Stone, a precursor of precast concrete," Hazell says. "It was a type of solidified mortar. It was superb at handling our climate and it can be carved. The problems happened because it was coated with Portland cement and latex paint. You can see in the areas that weren't touched the Roman Stone is doing just fine."

Ever the entrepreneur, Pellatt had seen Roman Stone in the U.S. and hoped to introduce it to Canada as a building material of the future. Whatever other intentions he had for Casa Loma, it was also to be a showcase of this new technology.

"It is a lovely material," Hazell insists. "But we wrecked it."

So far, the main entrance, with its porte cochère and enormous bay window, has been fully restored. Even the lead muntin bars that hold the glass panes in place are now in pristine condition. Recently, the scaffolding was moved west and work started on the veranda and the façade north of the Norman Tower.

The restoration is a phased operation; eight stages, which add up to about 40 per cent of the building, are complete and three stages remain to be done.

Inside, the story is altogether different. Though there are few obvious signs of decay, there are also few signs of authenticity. The Great Hall, for instance, has been altered, unsympathetically, to accommodate amenities such as washrooms, stairwells and ticket booths. Though the grandeur of Pellatt's vision survives intact, the details are less visible.

The furnishings are long gone, of course, and Casa Loma staff hopes to fill the rooms eventually with "period-appropriate" replacements. But that's a long, slow, expensive process and money isn't exactly flowing.

"We do what we can," says Casa Loma CEO Virginia Cooper, who presides over 22 full-time and 50 part-time staff.

"The remarkable part is that we have managed to retain our position" among Toronto's most popular tourist attractions, she says.

As is the case with every local tourist attraction, Casa Loma is still recovering from the SARS debacle. That year, 2003, marked the first time since 1937 that the Kiwanis didn't make a profit on the castle. In fact, it recorded a $400,000 deficit. Last year, the attraction made a modest surplus of $250,000.

Most of Cooper's time is spent trying to make sure the place is always busy. Between 350,000 and 400,000 visitors show up annually — 45 per cent from the U.S. Another 20 per cent are from other countries and 20 per cent are Canadians from outside the GTA. The rest are from the city.

But therein lies one of Casa Loma's most enduring dilemmas: How to get Torontonians into the place.

The city's culture director, Rita Davies, argues that the people of Toronto "have strong emotional ties to the castle." But the figures don't bear her out.

"Quite a lot of tourists come here specifically to see Casa Loma," Cooper claims, "especially from the States."

Beyond that, she says, there are "tiny niche markets, but they're not large in volume."

That translates into 100 weddings yearly, 40 days of film-shooting, Christmas and March Break events and occasional bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, wine-tastings, concerts and so on.

"On average, we're booked 190 nights a year," Cooper says. "We're fairly proud of what we're doing here."

Still, there's no question Casa Loma has suffered various indignities over the decades. The egregious two-storey concrete parking garage, for instance, built just west of the castle in the 1980s where gardens used to be, is a blight on the landscape.

Inside, some of the artefacts, such the very dubious suits of armour, are an embarrassment. And the architectural drawings by E.J. Lennox on the second floor have faded almost to nothing. The large Druxy's sign doesn't add much to the ambience, and neither do the stand-up fans that make do in the absence of air conditioning.

Regardless, the castle is crammed with visitors from all over: Japanese tourists with their cameras flashing, overweight men in Stetsons and bored children speaking French.

"Frankly, there have been years when things were not kept up," Davies admits.

"We went to city council in 2003 and said, `We need to commit capital resources or shut Casa Loma down.' Council committed $20 million over 10 years. And now the money we receive from the lease agreement will be put back into the building."

As Hazell rightly points out, "The city has never really figured out what to do with Casa Loma. It's a cultural enigma, a bourgeois extravagance that didn't fit in with the sober reality of the city."

"But," he adds, "we're making progress; now is our best opportunity to recognize the cultural significance of Casa Loma."

Like the building itself, it's hard to miss.

I was through there last week and was very unimpressed. One or two rooms were slightly impressive but on the whole it was ultra tacky. If the Kiwanis Club is responsible for renovating the rooms they should have there stake in it revoked. One look at the faux marble walls in Lady Pellatt's room makes me think that if that is the quality of the reno's (or what ever the call it) that are going on they should scrap it all together. It looks like a grade school rooming project. Philanthropists unite - this one needs saving but not at the expense of quality and taste.
If it's in Chuck Hazell's hands, they're good ones.
Besides, how much of the "ultra tackiness" is a pre-existing (i.e. pre-Hazell) condition (as per the article)--and if it's restoration, could the tackiness even be Pellatt-era, technically speaking? (Remember that as goes its reputation vis-a-vis Toronto, Casa Loma has never not been ultra-tacky, really.)
Post: Casa Loma Stuck in Past

From the Post:

Casa Loma stuck in the past, panel says
Committee calls for new agency to overhaul tourist site

James Cowan, National Post
Published: Thursday, June 01, 2006

Radical changes are needed to restore Casa Loma's status as a premiere tourist attraction and historic building in Toronto, according to an advisory panel.

A report from the Casa Loma Advisory Committee released yesterday suggests the 92-year-old castle is beset with problems, ranging from a faulty governance model to inadequate signage to a lacklustre gift shop. The committee wants to create a public trust dedicated to restoring Casa Loma's lost lustre.

"There is a sense the castle has been ignored, both on its inside and outside, and would benefit from a group focusing on it," said Ron Kanter, the committee's chairman.

Built between 1911 and 1914 by Henry Pellatt, the 98-room mansion features 22 fireplaces, three bowling alleys and a shooting gallery. Designed by E.J. Lennox, the architect who designed Old City Hall, the castle was occupied by Sir Henry and his wife for less than a decade.

Now owned by the City of Toronto, Casa Loma has been operated as a tourist attraction by the Kiwanis Club since 1937. Responsibility for the care of the facility is split between the non-profit group and two city departments. Establishing a trust would create a single agency responsible for the entire castle.

"It's really a different style of governance," Mr. Kanter said. "It would create a unified group to represent the castle as a whole."

Mr. Kanter's committee was established by city council in 2004. Its report notes a litany of problems at the historic site, including a failure to keep pace with other local attractions. While the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario offer high-end restaurants and boutiques, Casa Loma has only a deli and gift shop in its basement. These limited services mean the castle makes 80% less money per visitor compared with other attractions.

"There is a need for a cheap place for kids and families to eat, but there may be a place for some variety and choice," Mr. Kanter said. "Sir Henry Pellatt had a wine cellar, and I was disappointed to find it has not been restored or maintained."

Casa Loma is also vulnerable to fluctuations in tourism levels since its marketing is almost solely focused on visitors from outside the city. When SARS struck Toronto in 2003, it resulted in a severe drop in attendance and forced the Kiwanis Club to ask the city to defer $200,000 in licensing payments. According to Mr. Kanter, the castle needs to attract more local residents to remain financially viable.

"We found Torontonians have not been there in a long time -- not since they were kids or not since they attended a wedding," Mr. Kanter said. "We feel there should be new and changing exhibits to attract Torontonians."

The creation of a public trust would not preclude the Kiwanis Club's continued involvement in running the castle. However, the group would likely have to compete with other organizations for the licensing contract once the current agreement expires in 2008.

Terry Nicholson, the city's manager of cultural affairs, noted this is the first time the city has examined its relationship with the Kiwanis Club.

"It's like trying to do a pre-nup on a 70-year marriage," Mr. Nicholson said. "There's been a relationship between the city and Kiwanis going back to 1937, and then our committee showed up and started asking questions. It's not that easy to unravel a 70-year relationship."

The committee was critical of Kiwanis' use of the earnings from the castle. After paying close to $1-million each year in licensing fees, the community group donates most of its remaining profits to charity. Mr. Kanter said the profits should be reinvested in the castle.

"Money raised by Casa Loma should be ploughed back into Casa Loma, not only to maintain but improve the castle's appearance and operation," Mr. Kanter said.

The city has begun a $20-million restoration project on the building's exterior, but Mr. Kanter said work needs to be done on the building's "dowdy" interior.

While other cultural institutions in Toronto have benefited from millions of dollars in public and private donations in recent years, Casa Loma has been unsuccessful in attracting similar funding.

"We are in the middle of a cultural building boom in Toronto, and Casa Loma probably needs a similar infusion of funds to bring it to the next level," Mr. Nicholson said. "In our view, you can't do it just from money at the gate."

Representatives of Casa Loma did not respond to interview requests yesterday.


$3.5-million Cost to build in 1914

300 Number of workmen

10,000 Books in the library

22 Working fireplaces

3 Bowling alleys

1 Shooting gallery

2 hectares Size of its gardens

$12,000 Cost of stained-glass dome in conservatory

$10,000 each Cost of conservatory's bronze doors

400,000 Number of visitors annually

3 Rank in popularity as tourist attraction in Toronto (Eaton Centre and CN Tower come first and second)


Henry Pellatt, who built the country's first hydro-electric generating station, spent $3.5-million building Casa Loma between 1911 and 1914. But Sir Henry and his wife occupied the castle for only a decade before financial problems forced them out. During the Depression, Toronto increased Casa Loma's property taxes from $400 annually to $1,200, and the floundering businessman was forced to auction off $1.5-million in art and furnishings for only $250,000. The castle operated briefly as a luxury hotel and nightclub before the city seized it in 1933 for $27,303 in back taxes. Four years later, the Kiwanis Club opened the castle to the public and has operated it on behalf of the city ever since.

© National Post 2006

Thanks for the info' AoD. Surely one of the city's best attributes? How many other cities, in N. America at least, have a castle???
I think things can be done to improve the way that Casa Loma is presented to visitors. I really like the way that tours of Casa Loma emphasize on the history of the building and how it relates to the history of the city. However given the way that the building looks (like a medieval castle), most visitors expect to see exhibits on medieval weaponry, warfare, and armour, which I think is lacking in the building. There's plenty of empty space in the attic and the tower that can be used for that. Similarly there is a lot of room in the Stables, which seems to have an automobile theme... it can be used for an exhibit on antique cars.

If Kiwanis wants to make more money off of Casa Loma, why not reopen the bowling alley and the shooting gallery... if they're still there.
I am not sure if the economics would work, but wouldn't the place work wonderfully as a high-end B&B?

Just imagine, staying in period rooms with excursions to the dunge...err, basement to complete the "castle" experience.

I totally agree with that article. I have been to Casa Loma many times and I always come away disappointed. It is poorly maintained and little thought has gone into how to improve how it operates. The marketing is dreadful!
It is a great, unique and even beautiful building that has great potential. What other city in North America has a huge castle? Just the fact that they built that parking garage, shows their lack of respect. That whole building should be surrounded by things that make it more attractive, not obstruct the view. (trees, plants, rocks, fountains, benches, sculpture, art, a store/cafe). The parking lot should have been put underground with a park on top. They just have to look at great castles and palaces in Europe to see how to do it right. Yeah, it takes money but money is out there if you know how to get it.
The inside needs renovation, innovation and some entertainment value. Changing exhibits would be great, so would better educational material.
It basically has be left to remain stagnant for many years now. It's time for the government to take over control and make it the landmark attraction it should be.
If you have watched "America's Castles" on A&E, you'll know that there are lots of places on the continent that one can tour grand homes, including Newport, Rhode Island, as mentioned. The homes featured on the series represent a huge number of styles, and Newport's homes are impressive in their size and variety, but no other home in North America is so perfectly ersatz castle, as Casa Loma.