by John Goddard February 8th 2010
After lavish promises to renew one of Toronto’s top tourist landmarks, the Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma has accomplished next to nothing in the last 20 months.
Missed deadlines figure in almost every aspect of a much-ballyhooed deal with the city to turn Henry Pellatt’s neo-Gothic castle into a modern museum and event centre.
Detailed proposals due last June to rework the castle and its outbuildings into fresh galleries, community venues, a theatre and possibly a five-star restaurant have been rejected as inadequate, city officials say.
A prescription for “the complete reinvigoration” of the third-floor galleries is more than a month overdue, with the board of trustees requesting a one-year extension.
While masons hired by the city continue to shore up the crumbling exterior, completion of almost every Kiwanis commitment scheduled this year remains in doubt, including a visitor orientation centre and centerpiece gift shop.
“There is optimism,” says board chairman Richard Wozenilek, suggesting the program to upgrade the site into a jewel of Edwardian Toronto can be put back on track.
“We have not lowered our expectations,” says Toronto’s executive director for culture Rita Davies, whose job it is to monitor the Kiwanis Club’s commitments.
“There may be some time delays,” she says, “but we have absolutely not lowered our expectations of the vision that the people of Toronto have for the castle.”
One obvious need is to refurbish the floors. Casa Loma has applied for a grant to repair the floor of the showpiece Oak Room.
Work on renovations of the catering kitchens and installation of first-floor air conditioning is in progress, the Kiwanis say.
Self-made industrialist Sir Henry Pellatt built Casa Loma as Canada’s largest private home between 1911 and 1914 – complete with secret passageways and towering battlements overlooking the downtown from Davenport and Spadina Aves.
In 1924, failed investments forced Pellatt to forfeit the castle to the city and in 1937 the Kiwanis Club leased it to run as a tourist site.
All went well until about 10 years ago, when the exterior began to crumble and complaints arose about the overall dreariness of a site touted as one of the city’s Top 5 tourist destinations, drawing 350,000 people a year.
Amid a $20 million exterior restoration, due to finish in 2013, councilors called for “rebranding” and “renewed vision” for Casa Loma.
The castle would feature in Toronto’s “cultural renaissance as a Creative City,” one document said.
With much fanfare, after rejecting other proposals, the city signed a 20-year renewal agreement to let the Kiwanis take up the challenge.
Delays stem from many factors, board chairman Wozenilek said in an interview last week.
Visitor numbers are down, reducing income available for improvements, he said, although tourism officials said last week Toronto visitor levels held steady in 2009.
Wedding and party rentals are down because of the exterior work, the chairman also said, while also noting that the new board took a while to jell.