Jun-4-2005-Globe Casa Loma’s identity crisis

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


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 clichÈ 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."

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