Monday, January 16, 2017

Casa Loma: the courage to dream

Though a not-so-good student of history in high school, as a traveler history has me enthralled. To see what a person yearns for, fights for, gathers, wages wars for, amassing wealth and territories, the opulence and grandeur of an era gone by...all these hold a great fascination to me.
Yet, a visit to Casa Loma palace bowled me over for a different reason altogether. Princes, kings, queens, lords living in opulence is well-established in history but for a common man like you and me living in a palace is a dream and that is what Sir Henry Pellatt aimed for. He built and lived in a palace, the grandeur of which is beyond the wildest dreams of a common man.
Pellatt rose from a very humble origins as a stock broker. He made fortunes through his ambitious hydro-electric and railway projects. His larger-than-life persona sought to make a mark in history in the form of this grand castle in the North of Toronto built on the top of a hill in 1914.
Casa Loma on a foggy day

The very ambitious plan for the castle consisted of 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, magnificent fireplaces, 3 bowling alleys, a swimming pool, a rifle range and huge grounds all around for walking. The best architect was hired to plan the construction of the palace, begun in 1911, with the help of 300 men at a total cost of  3.5 million dollars.The best of mahogany, oak, walnut, teak and marble from across the world used for the interiors added another 1.5 million dollars to the cost.
The Hunting Lodge and the stables right across Casa Loma were constructed first. It also housed the servants' quarters. It is said that each of the stables had the name of the horse embellished in gold.

The Hunting Lodge and servants' quarters

When the city built a road cutting across this property, Pellatt had a long 800-ft tunnel connecting the palace to the Hunting Lodge dug beneath the street. This long passage is said to have helped Pellatt protect himself from cold winters while walking from the palace to the stables.
The ground floor of the palace consisted of a palatial main hall at the entrance, a large library with a collection of 10000 books, the dining and serving areas, Pellatt's study and the impressive conservatory.
An example of Pellatt's ambitious plan is his collection of  50 various telephone instruments in the castle, accounting for more than half the telephones in Toronto, with its own exchange system.

One of the 50 phones in the palace
Pellatt had the grand Napoleon's desk replicated in his study. There were two secret passage ways from each side of the fireplace, one led to his bedroom and another to the basement. The movement across floors was also assisted  with the help of lifts that Pallett had installed...again an unheard of luxury in those days. Strangely there was no staircase from the central hall to the first floor.

Pellatt's study

The Oak room was one of the most formal rooms with grand interiors where Pellatt entertained important guests. Off the Oak Room are the huge Smoking Room and the Billiards Room.

The Oak Room
Towards the end of the main floor, there was a conservatory with the best floral arrangements. Steamed water helped maintain normal temperatures during harsh winters.
Between the huge library and the conservatory was the equally spacious dining room. A passage from the kitchen led to the Serving Room where all dishes were assembled before serving. Attached was a small hideaway where the orchestra would play in the background
The first floor consisted of palatial bedrooms of Henry Pellatt and Lady Pellatt. Only the rich could afford a bedroom each for the husband and wife in those days.The bedrooms showcased exhibits brought from all over the world.
Apart from the many bedrooms for guests, he had a special bedroom, the Windsor Room, for the Queen. Ambitious as he was, he hoped that one day he would boast of a Royal visit.

In anticipation of a Royal visit

The fireplace in Windsor room
Despite a temporary recess during World War I, the construction resumed in time to enable Pellatt and his wife to move into the near-completed palace in 1914.
The post-war recession witnessed Pellatt's fast-depleting reserves. He owned 1.7 million dollars to the Home Bank which collapsed in 1923. Adding to his woes, the property tax increased from $600 a year to $1000  a month! In addition, mounting fuel costs for heating the palace, the cost of maintaining the 40 servants, the lavishly-held parties which had the who's who of those times...all these led to Pellatt's bankruptcy.
The couple had to move out of the palace in 1924. Lady Pellatt died shortly after of a heart attack
Most of the assets in the palace were auctioned to repay debts.The artifacts lovingly gathered from all over the world were given away at throw-away prices: "A Persian rug for the cost of a doormat." Pellatt is said to move out with just three van full of belongings.
The grandiose plans for the palace were never completed and the whole of the second floor lies vacant. Once abandoned, the palace lay itself wide open to heavy vandalization. Not knowing what to do with the palace, the city thought of demolishing this 'appalling' structure at a point of time.
It is now restored and is open to public view. It is also used for conducting events and film shootings. In the now Gift Shop, you can see plans for the three bowling alleys.The grandly planned swimming pool houses the theater which runs a documentary film on Henry Pellatt.

Pellatt's story has me awed due to his sheer guts and gumption in building this palace. Common people would never dream of such ostentation but he dared to dream beyond the possible, to live in this imposing structure even if it was for nine years only. He shrugged away the label of being mad for his seemingly absurd plans. He had one son who in turn isn't survived by a progeny.
He never regained that opulence but yes, some redemption for Sir Henry Pellatt as people turned out in thousands to bear witness to his funeral procession held on a cold winter day in March, 1939.

(Most of what I have written comes from the audio tour provided during my visit to the palace and looking up several articles on the internet.)