As new tourist attractions like the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada and the Aga Khan Museum + Ismaili Centre open their doors to the public, an historic Toronto landmark is also getting a new lease on life. Since the Liberty Entertainment Group took over operations at Casa Loma from the Kiwanis Club, changes have been swift and substantial. Previously empty rooms are being reinvigorated, newly acquired period furniture is being installed, and restoration work is continuing across various interior areas.
Casa Loma has been a Toronto landmark for decades, since Kingston-born financier Sir Henry Pellatt commissioned architect E.J. Lennox in 1911 to build what would become the largest private residence in Canada upon completion three years later. Pellatt, with significant business interests in rail, electricity, land and insurance, used his vast wealth to build the castle at a cost of $3.5 million. Following financial difficulties several years later, Pellatt auctioned off many of his possessions and left his dream castle. In the following years the building had a short stint as a luxury hotel but was once again left vacant when expansion plans fell through. The Kiwanis Club of West Toronto operated the building as a tourist attraction between 1937 and 2011, when the City of Toronto temporarily took over management of the property in search of a new private operator. In January 2014, the City of Toronto entered into a 20-year lease and operating agreement with Liberty Entertainment Group. Led by CEO Nick Di Donato, Liberty has already made several improvements to the property, all overseen by Heritage Preservation Services.
Many Torontonians have typically viewed Casa Loma as a tourist trap rather than an attraction that generates enough interest to sustain repeat visits. To counter that perception, Liberty has begun spending the money required to restore Casa Loma's lustre and is putting greater emphasis on hosting special events and programming aimed to attract both tourists and Torontonians.
One such event, running now throughout the holidays, celebrates Casa Loma's centennial. '100 Years of Christmas' festivities aimed at families include 'The Snow Queen' dance and theatre show, arts and crafts, a scavenger hunt and cookie decorating. Christmas Carollers echo through the seasonally decorated halls, children get the chance to meet Santa, and the third floor hallway has been lined with paintings by art students from Toronto schools.
The most whimsical aspect of the 100 Years event takes the form of ten designer Christmas trees which are located throughout the building. Each tree is decorated to represent a different decade from the past century by some of the best designers, architects, and fashionistas in their respective industries.
Design studio AUDAX Architecture, whose work includes The Shops at Summerhill and The Chase restaurant in the financial district, was responsible for capturing the essence of the 1960s. The result is a funky and colourful piece which mimics some of the flashy art and fashion trends of the decade. Topped off by a peace sign, the tree bears gifts at its base, including the Beatles' album Yellow Submarine and the game Twister, which was patented in 1966.
Realizing the design was a delicate process that required hours of careful thought and CAD work, not unlike the process AUDAX takes when designing full-scale buildings. Over 1,000 rectangular ornaments hang from the tree. Each ornament was laser cut from acrylic sheets, the surface area of the tree had to be measured in order to determine the proper shape and size of each piece. The image below depicts AUDAX's Founding Principal and Architect Gianpiero Pugliese showing off his team's creation.
Other trees scattered throughout the interior include the designs of Lynda Reeves, President of House & Home Media; Dean and Dan Caten, Founders and Owners of Dsquared2; Bill Fulghum of Stemz, and several more.
On the opening night of '100 Years of Christmas', Co-Founder and Director of the WaterStone Clinic Kim Duffy prepared remarks for the crowd following a lively Christmas choir. WaterStone assists people suffering from eating disorders and concurrent issues through a range of services and treatments. Until December 28, $1 from every adult general admission will be donated to the charity.
The opening night provided guests with the opportunity to explore the castle's intricate rooms while also acting as a fundraiser for the WaterStone Foundation.
Catherine Bridgman, President of Casa Loma for the Liberty Entertainment Group, after hailing WaterStone for their work, went on to speak about the many changes Liberty has in store for the building. As part of the revitalization efforts, Liberty has signaled its intention to update the cultural and school programming offered at the attraction by making use of the latest technology to enhance guests' experiences.
The exterior gardens and terraces of the property are getting some of that attention from Liberty and are looking just as festive as the interior. Dubbed 'Winter Wonderland in the Gardens', trees have been wrapped in lights and decorative illuminated sculptures now dot the landscape.
The outdoor terrace, previously closed to the public in the Winter, is now open and provides guests with a fantastic view of the decorations, with the Toronto skyline acting as the dramatic backdrop.
Once warmer weather has returned, parts of the terrace will soon become a patio to a new restaurant, also set to occupy the whole west wing of the Casa Loma's ground floor.
'100 Years of Christmas' marks the end to an eventful year at Casa Loma. The Summer Symphony Series invited guests to performances in the gardens by the Toronto Concert Orchestra, and just a few weeks ago the sounds of the Fall Symphony Series echoed throughout the halls of the historic structure.
The City of Toronto continues to finance ongoing restoration of Casa Loma, with some of the west wing currently shrouded in scaffolding, while on the inside, Liberty is embarking on restoring many of the building's original features. For example, most of Casa Loma's floors have been beautifully refurbished, while ensuring their patina of age remains, a process Nick Di Donato describes as a careful balancing act.
Over the course of the building's interior restoration, Liberty consulted numerous archival photos which revealed the many changes that had taken place during Kiwanis' tenure. In some cases, wall sconces and chandeliers had been removed or relocated to other parts of the building. Many of these items have now been put back in their original locations and where necessary, antiques have been purchased to replace items that had been lost or damaged over the years.
Previously underused spaces have now taken on a new life throughout the building. The lower level now includes a revitalized and re-branded dining area, the Liberty Cafe, as well as a new theatre. The theatre, formerly a concrete shell where Pellatt had envisioned but never completed a swimming pool, opened in October. Narrated by Canadian celeb Colin Mochrie, a 22-minute film tells viewers about Pellatt's rise and fall as historical images grasp the perimeter pool archways and projections of blue light mimic the water that would have occupied the space.
Up on the third floor attic, several unused spaces currently occupied by stairways leading to the two Casa Loma towers will soon become an area to admire a collection of scale models representing significant Toronto developments. Current models in temporary display locations include the Art Gallery of Ontario and the initial proposals for Ten York and the Pantages Tower and Theatre. Liberty hopes to obtain models from many iconic Toronto developments, especially those visible from the turrets, and dramatically light the truss-filled attic spaces for more permanent displays.
While Casa Loma undergoes its revival, the stables, located 800 feet to the north and accessed via the famous tunnel, has also had its spaces redefined. A collection of vintage cars now occupies the garage and carriage room of the building, with each vehicle representing a significant year in Casa Loma's history. In keeping with the slightly creepy feel of the tunnel, its walls have now been graced with photographs depicting some of Toronto's darker historic events. It's all very tastefully done and helps to bring the visitor back in time to Casa Loma's heyday.
The sheer scale of the changes at Casa Loma means that we will be back to check on progress in the coming months. By renewing the rooms inside the castle and opening up opportunities for people to tour its previously empty spaces, Casa Loma will be reintroduced to a new generation of Torontonians.
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