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Architectural Features of Casa Loma


From dream to reality

Casa Loma, the “house on the hill” was the culmination of more than six years work and took $3.5 million and 300 men to complete. For Sir Henry Pellatt, the builder and original owner, Casa Loma was the physical manifestation of his travels and of his dreams of medieval times. Sir Henry envisioned that he would need a substantial piece of land on a hilltop setting, so between 1903-1905 he purchased approximately twenty-five lots east of Walmer Road in Toronto.

In Edward James Lennox, “Builder of Toronto”, published by Dundern Press, author Marilyn M. Litvak describes how Sir Henry went about building his castle with the Canadian architect, E. J. Lennox. Basing his vision on his numerous travels through Europe, he asked Lennox to recreate the sights he had experienced there, namely the great castles of Europe. To flesh out ideas for the design of this hilltop home, Lennox and Pellatt traveled in Europe and the British Isles in search of the perfect castle.

Inspired by days of old

Medieval castles were the source of inspiration for the design of Casa Loma – but it was built more like 16th and 17th century castles. In those times the need for impregnability became more of a design concern than a real need. The fortress-like appearance of castles in those centuries became more symbolic than functional for the noblemen who dwelt within. Sir Henry wanted the same for his abode – 20th century Toronto was in no danger of attack from barbarous hordes so the castle was not built for the purpose of real defense, but rather to create an impression of impregnability.

The height from the ground to the top of the Scottish tower is more than 130 feet. Foundations at some points go 45 feet underground. Casa Loma is characterized by a complicated skyline of white cast-stone battlements, chimneys and corbelled towers. The highest of the towers is crowned by a conical roof. Such care was taken to maintain this medieval impression that down-spouts were buried so as not to detract from the illusion.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

This immense architectural adventure involved construction of a scale never previously seen in a private home. Designs for the outbuildings were ready in 1905 and the Pellatt lodge was the first structure to be completed. The stables came next in 1906. It then took more than three years of design and discussion before the permit to build the main house was granted in December 1909. The Pellatts did not move into Casa Loma until 1913 and even then the construction was ongoing.

The entire complex included a castle, stables, a greenhouse – nearly half an acre in size – workman’s cottages and extensive gardens. The effort involved a truly international contingent with stone masons from Scotland and craftsmen form Italy brought to work on the castle. The castle plans called for 98 rooms, five thousand electric lights, an electrically operated elevator, a wine cellar and a marble swimming pool just to name a few features. The building was no easy feat as each room was designed to create a different atmosphere with materials and styles utilized to create the desired effect. Due to the financial difficulties, which would soon plague Sir Henry, numerous parts of the home such as the swimming pool and rifle range, were not completed.

A horse’s life

The Casa Loma stables reflected the luxury that would later be realized in the Castle. The horses lived in richer circumstances than the average person of the time. The stalls were built of mahogany, and the floors of Spanish tile. These tiles were laid in a herringbone pattern to prevent the horses from slipping. Concern for the health of the stabled horses also extended to the design of the windows – casement window above the stalls were hinged at the bottom so as to open upwards thereby avoiding a draft on the horses. The care for design extended to the exterior where the main entrances were framed in white cast stone, and finials in the form of heraldic beasts sat on top of buttresses. Hampton Court and Hengrave Hall, two well known estates in England, provided the source for the ornamentation of the stables.

The Great Hall

Just as exterior of a castle was meant to fill onlookers’ hearts with awe so was its interior designed to command respect. Such a design aesthetic is demonstrated in the Great Hall. This was the first of main-level rooms that visitors to Casa Loma would have encountered and it certainly lives up to its name. The ceiling in this room is 60 feet high and features a hammer-beam roof. At one end visitors can see a 12 metre (40 foot) high leaded glass window with 738 individual panes. Cheerful gargoyles grace the supporting columns.

The Library

The library with its magnificent herring-bone hardwood flooring can be found just east of the Great Hall. The angle at which the wood grain is set creates an interesting visual illusion. When you look across the floor you can see floor stripes of light and dark wood, but when you look straight down, the wood is one colour. Sir Henry took a special interest in the laying of this floor. He would inspect it wearing bedroom slippers and walk across it carefully testing for any squeaks. This floor was built strong enough to bear the weight of a locomotive because Sir Henry wanted Casa Loma to eventually become a military museum.

The library was extraordinarily large with shelf space for thousands of books. Sir Henry was not known for an overwhelming passion of literature, so these shelves in his time were filled with books on military and imperial history and gardening. The ceiling was plastered in Elizabethan style with the Pellatt family crest molded in the ceiling. “Devant Si Je Puis – Foremost if I can,” – a motto which Sir Henry lived by as evidenced by the grandeur of Casa Loma.

The Napoleon Drawing Room

The Oak Room was originally called the Napoleon Drawing Room and functioned as Sir Henry’s drawing room. This room best represents the original interior design concept at Casa Loma – the room displays an artistic grandeur and combines the finest traditional craftsmanship with the latest technology.

Walls were elaborately clad in solid oak panels in the style of Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721) – a famous English Renaissance carver. It took three German craftsmen three years to produce, with the carving completed by Italian craftsmen brought to Toronto specifically for the task. In Sir Henry’s days, there was a Louis XVI carved and engraved ormolu light standard – nearly 10 feet high and fitted with 24 electric lights. The lighting was designed to illuminate the handsomely molded ceiling – also executed by Italian craftsmen.

Peacock Alley

As with so many other features in Casa Loma that are borrowed from famous castles, this hallway was modeled on one by the same name at Windsor Castle. The floor was constructed of reinforced concrete intended to support Pellatt’s large collection of medieval and early Renaissance Armor and the walls were once hung with paintings from the Pellatts’ vast art collection.

The Conservatory

The conservatory situated at the end of Peacock Alley was reportedly Lady Pellatt’s favourite room on the ground floor. Exotically designed, it reflected the Pellatts’ shared love of gardening. The marble floor is Italian while the marble facings on the flower beds came from a quarry in Bancroft. To ensure that the temperature of soil for exotic plants was correct all year round steam pipes were buried in the flower beds.

The doors to the Conservatory were copies of a set made in New York for an Italian Villa and cost an estimated $10,000. These bronze and glass doors were fitted so that quarter-inch plate glass swung free on piano-hinges for ease of cleaning. The magnificent stained glass ceiling dome imported from Italy, at a cost of $12,000, was back-lit by 600 light bulbs so that the beauty of the glass could be appreciated at all times of the day and night.

The Pellatts’ private domain

The second story of the castle was the setting for the Pellatts’ private life. As was common among people of higher social standing, Lady Pellatt and Sir Henry had separate living quarters with Lady Pellatt’s being the more substantial. Again this was typical in all fine houses where women were graced with larger suites. Lady Pellatt’s suite was 278 sq. metres (3,000 sq. ft) and consisted of a bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and balcony. Sir Henry’s bedroom was as masculine as Lady Pellatt’s was feminine, paneled in mahogany with pilasters and complete with a hidden compartment beside the marble fireplace.

Though the inspiration for Casa Loma came originally from the cold and drafty castles of Scotland, Sir Henry’s bathroom demonstrates his practicality and willingness to sacrifice historical accuracy for new world technology and comfort. The focal point of his bathroom is the shower which has its own heater. Water sprays from both above and from the sides and six large taps control hot and cold water. All in all, Casa Loma contained 15 baths.

Beyond the architecture

Not only was each room distinctive in and of itself, but the castle was also filled with other features which added to the uniqueness of the home. Casa Loma was the first private home in Canada and the first building in Toronto to have an electric elevator. It was installed for Lady Pellatt because of her confinement to a wheel chair.

It was fitting that Sir Henry who was such a pioneer in bringing electrical power to Toronto built a castle filled with electrical innovations. A master electric light system was controlled form a panel in Sir Henry’s bedroom. There were 59 telephones in the house with the Castle’s switchboard operator handling more calls than did the entire city of Toronto. Cleaning the immense home was made easier through the installation of a central vacuuming system.

What castle would be complete without tunnels and secret passages? Casa Loma is no exception. In the study on either side of the fireplace there is an entrance to a secret passageway. The one on the right enabled Sir Henry quick access to his basement wine cellar, while the passage on the left led upstairs to bedroom suites. There is also a 240 metre (800 feet) tunnel, which connects the castle with the house and stables.

The kitchen, though filled with modern conveniences, was built to medieval proportions with ovens that were big enough to cook an ox. Considering the amount of entertaining which the dining room saw, the kitchen was probably utilized more than modern-day visitors can imagine.

The creative minds behind Casa Loma borrowed the best from centuries of tradition in building this unique home. Together Sir Henry and Edward James Lennox managed to utilize the comforts of modern technology while remaining true to the medieval vision which was their original inspiration.

Lou Seiler, Director of Marketing
Casa Loma
(416) 923-1171 ext. 212