A folly to outdo almost any other, Casa Loma is undoubtedly Toronto’s most bizarre attraction, an enormous towered and turreted mansion built for Sir Henry Pellatt between 1911 and 1914. Every inch the self-made man, Pellatt made a fortune by pioneering the use of hydroelectricity, harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to light Ontario’s expanding cities. Determined to construct a house no one could ignore, Pellatt gathered furnishings from all over the world and even imported Scottish stonemasons to build the wall around his 2.5-hectare property. He spent more than $3m fulfilling his dream, but business misfortunes and the rising cost of servants forced him to move out in 1923, earning him the nickname “Pellatt the Plunger”. His legacy is a strange mixture of medieval fantasy and early twentieth-century technology: secret passageways, an elevator, and claustrophobic wood-panelled rooms baffled by gargantuan pipes and plumbing.
The ground floor
A clearly numbered, self-guiding route goes up one side of the house and down the other. It begins on the ground floor in the great hall, a pseudo-Gothic extravaganza with an 18m-high cross-beamed ceiling, a Wurlitzer organ and enough floor space to accommodate several hundred guests. Hung with flags, heavy-duty chandeliers and a suit of armour, it’s a remarkably cheerless place, but in a touch worthy of an Errol Flynn movie, the hall is overlooked by a balcony at the end of Pellatt’s second-floor bedroom: presumably he could, like some medieval baron, welcome his guests from on high.
Next is the library, followed by the walnut-panelled dining room, which leads to the conservatory, an elegant and spacious room with a marble floor and side-panels set beneath a handsome Tiffany domed-glass ceiling. This is perhaps the mansion’s most appealing room, its flowerbeds kept warm even in winter by the original network of steam pipes. The nearby study was Pellatt’s favourite room, a serious affair engulfed by mahogany panelling and equipped with two secret passageways, one leading to the wine cellar, the other to his wife’s rooms – a quintessential choice for any self-made man.
The second and third floors
On the second floor, Sir Henry’s suite has oodles of walnut and mahogany panelling, which stands in odd contrast to the 1910s white-marble, high-tech bathroom, featuring an elaborate multi-nozzle shower. Lady Pellatt’s suite wasn’t left behind in the ablutions department either – her bathroom had a bidet, a real novelty in George V’s Canada – though she had a lighter decorative touch, eschewing wood panelling for walls painted in her favourite colour, Wedgwood Blue.
The third floor holds a mildly diverting display on Pellatt’s one-time regiment, the Queen’s Own Rifles, tracing their involvement in various campaigns from the 1885 suppression of the Métis rebellion in western Canada through to World War I and beyond. From the third floor, wooden staircases clamber up to two of the house’s towers, from where there are pleasing views over the house and gardens.
The lower level and the gardens
On the ground floor, stairs lead down to the lower level, which was where Pellatt’s money ran out and his plans ground to a halt. Work never started on the bowling alleys and shooting range he’d designed, and the swimming pool only got as far as the rough concrete basin that survives today. Pellatt did manage to complete the 250m-long tunnel running from the house and pool to the carriage room and stables, where his thoroughbred horses were allegedly better-treated than his servants, chomping away at their oats and hay in splendid iron-and-mahogany stalls. The stables are a dead-end, so you’ll have to double back along the tunnel to reach the house and the exit.
Before you leave, spare time for the terraced gardens, which tumble down the ridge at the back of the house. They are parcelled up into several different sections and easily explored along a network of footpaths, beginning on the terrace behind the great hall.