June-1-2006 National Post – Casa Loma stuck in the past, panel says

Radical changes are needed to restore Casa Loma’s status as a premiere tourist attraction and historic building in Toronto, according to an advisory panel.


Radical changes are needed to restore Casa Loma’s status as a premiere tourist attraction and historic building in Toronto, according to an advisory panel.

A report from the Casa Loma Advisory Committee released yesterday suggests the 92-year-old castle is beset with problems, ranging from a faulty governance model to inadequate signage to a lacklustre gift shop. The committee wants to create a public trust dedicated to restoring Casa Loma’s lost lustre.

“There is a sense the castle has been ignored, both on its inside and outside, and would benefit from a group focusing on it,” said Ron Kanter, the committee’s chairman.

Built between 1911 and 1914 by Henry Pellatt, the 98-room mansion features 22 fireplaces, three bowling alleys and a shooting gallery. Designed by E.J. Lennox, the architect who designed Old City Hall, the castle was occupied by Sir Henry and his wife for less than a decade.

Now owned by the City of Toronto, Casa Loma has been operated as a tourist attraction by the Kiwanis Club since 1937. Responsibility for the care of the facility is split between the non-profit group and two city departments. Establishing a trust would create a single agency responsible for the entire castle.

“It’s really a different style of governance,” Mr. Kanter said. “It would create a unified group to represent the castle as a whole.”

Mr. Kanter’s committee was established by city council in 2004. Its report notes a litany of problems at the historic site, including a failure to keep pace with other local attractions. While the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario offer high-end restaurants and boutiques, Casa Loma has only a deli and gift shop in its basement. These limited services mean the castle makes 80% less money per visitor compared with other attractions.

“There is a need for a cheap place for kids and families to eat, but there may be a place for some variety and choice,” Mr. Kanter said. “Sir Henry Pellatt had a wine cellar, and I was disappointed to find it has not been restored or maintained.”

Casa Loma is also vulnerable to fluctuations in tourism levels since its marketing is almost solely focused on visitors from outside the city. When SARS struck Toronto in 2003, it resulted in a severe drop in attendance and forced the Kiwanis Club to ask the city to defer $200,000 in licensing payments. According to Mr. Kanter, the castle needs to attract more local residents to remain financially viable.

“We found Torontonians have not been there in a long time — not since they were kids or not since they attended a wedding,” Mr. Kanter said. “We feel there should be new and changing exhibits to attract Torontonians.”

The creation of a public trust would not preclude the Kiwanis Club’s continued involvement in running the castle. However, the group would likely have to compete with other organizations for the licensing contract once the current agreement expires in 2008.

Terry Nicholson, the city’s manager of cultural affairs, noted this is the first time the city has examined its relationship with the Kiwanis Club.

“It’s like trying to do a pre-nup on a 70-year marriage,” Mr. Nicholson said. “There’s been a relationship between the city and Kiwanis going back to 1937, and then our committee showed up and started asking questions. It’s not that easy to unravel a 70-year relationship.”

The committee was critical of Kiwanis’ use of the earnings from the castle. After paying close to $1-million each year in licensing fees, the community group donates most of its remaining profits to charity. Mr. Kanter said the profits should be reinvested in the castle.

“Money raised by Casa Loma should be ploughed back into Casa Loma, not only to maintain but improve the castle’s appearance and operation,” Mr. Kanter said.

The city has begun a $20-million restoration project on the building’s exterior, but Mr. Kanter said work needs to be done on the building’s “dowdy” interior.

While other cultural institutions in Toronto have benefited from millions of dollars in public and private donations in recent years, Casa Loma has been unsuccessful in attracting similar funding.

“We are in the middle of a cultural building boom in Toronto, and Casa Loma probably needs a similar infusion of funds to bring it to the next level,” Mr. Nicholson said. “In our view, you can’t do it just from money at the gate.”

Representatives of Casa Loma did not respond to interview requests yesterday.



$3.5-million Cost to build in 1914

300 Number of workmen

10,000 Books in the library

22 Working fireplaces

3 Bowling alleys

1 Shooting gallery

2 hectares Size of its gardens

$12,000 Cost of stained-glass dome in conservatory

$10,000 each Cost of conservatory’s bronze doors

400,000 Number of visitors annually

3 Rank in popularity as tourist attraction in Toronto (Eaton Centre and CN Tower come first and second)


Henry Pellatt, who built the country’s first hydro-electric generating station, spent $3.5-million building Casa Loma between 1911 and 1914. But Sir Henry and his wife occupied the castle for only a decade before financial problems forced them out. During the Depression, Toronto increased Casa Loma’s property taxes from $400 annually to $1,200, and the floundering businessman was forced to auction off $1.5-million in art and furnishings for only $250,000. The castle operated briefly as a luxury hotel and nightclub before the city seized it in 1933 for $27,303 in back taxes. Four years later, the Kiwanis Club opened the castle to the public and has operated it on behalf of the city ever since.

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