Jun 22, 2013

Canada: Casa Loma, A Riches to Rags Story

Nothing in life is certain.  A meteoric rise to the top can be followed by a sudden plunge to the bottom.  Life is a journey and no stop along the way can safely be called an arrival.  This truth is particularly evident in the riches to rags story of Casa Loma and the man who built it, Sir Henry Pellatt.

Casa Loma is one of Toronto's top tourists attractions and it was on our must-see list for our Canada trip.  I'd heard it billed as the only real castle in all of North America, but this turned out to be false.  Casa Loma is  not an actual castle despite it's castle-like outward appearance.  It is a massive, 98-room mega-mansion.  At one time it was the largest private residence in Canada.  Today it is a museum, open to the public, and towering cautionary tale about the vagaries of life.

We arrived at Casa Loma early Monday afternoon, on Monday, May 20, 2013 after a subway ride into the city from a train station not far from our hotel.  Despite having our own transportation in the form of the church bus we'd used to drive from Columbus to Canada, we opted for public transportation that day.  It was Victoria Day, a major national holiday in Canada, and the whole group could ride all of Torontos public transportation all day on a pair of family passes that cost us about $25.  I figured this would be easier and cheaper than navigating our shuttle bus all over downtown Toronto and finding parking that would accommodate us. (It was a wise move; on Wednesday we returned downtown for some shopping and sightseeing and I spent a good hour or more looking for a parking lot that could take our oversized vehicle).

A couple of our boys riding the rails into town
Casa Loma was our requisite history stop on the class trip itinerary.  Each of the students were given an audio tour guide and an hour and half to explore the sprawling Casa Loma ground and learn what they could about the castle and it's founder.

I began my trek around the castle with a visit to the unfinished indoor pool in the basement and then through a long underground tunnel to the stables and potting shed located across the street. Immediately I sensed that this was not your typical story of opulent wealth.  I quickly learned that the palatial Casa Loma was never completed, and that Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife had moved out after only living there a short time.  I wondered what had happened, and as I continued my tour back at the main building the sad tale of the evaporation of Pellatt's fortune slowly unfolded.

The house was truly a wonder from the awe-inspiring great room and main hall to the gorgeous solarium to the imposing library to the richly decorated smoking room.  The master suites were incredible (Mr. and Mrs. Pellatt each had their own massive bedroom suite, which was typical among those who could afford it at the time).  Sir Henry's bathroom was luxurious even by today's standards and included a marble lined shower with multiple shower heads that massaged the bather from head to toe.
"Sun room" seems too plain a name for this grand space on the main floor

The massive domed stained glass skylight is the centerpiece of the Casa Loma solarium

 As I took in these majestic trappings, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to go from living like this to eking out your final days penniless in the cramped quarters of your chauffeur's house.  That was how things  turned out for Pellatt.  I won't tell the whole story (you can read that here), but the short version is that due to some unwise real estate ventures, the wholesale government appropriation of some his key businesses, and a brutal uptick in taxes (he went from paying $600 a year in taxes to $1000 a month!), Pellatt was forced to leave Casa Loma and auction off his exquisite treasures for a fraction of their value.  He lived to see his property fall into disrepair, barely avoid demolition, and finally be turned over to the Kiwanis Club of Toronto to be turned into museum.   With no apparent bitterness, he declared that he was pleased to see his former home used in this way, to bring joy to others for years to come.

A snapshot of the Pellatts' "backyard."

For a time at least, Sir Henry Pellatt's home literally was his castle.

Pellatt seemed to me to be a decent enough guy--rich folks often get a bad rap, but from all I gathered, he seemed to be a generous, humble man.  There was no morality tale where the evil baron gets his just deserts--just a series of unfortunate events.  I left Casa Loma feeling thankful for the blessings in my life, resolving to appreciate them more and envy others less.

I took this panoramic shot of the Toronto skyline (you can make out the CN Tower rising above the other buildings) from the highest turret of Casa Loma.  It's a quite a hike up a series of increasingly narrow and steep stairs, but worth it for the view.

Our principal Mrs. Arthurs had met us at Casa Loma.  She was unable to leave Columbus with us on Sabbath afternoon due to a conference-wide constituency meeting on Sunday, so she traveled by train and rental car to meet us early Monday afternoon.  Now our group split up as we headed for our next adventure, another Toronto icon, the CN Tower.  Mrs. Arthurs took half the kids with her in her rental car, while Mrs. Wimberly and I took the remaining group with us on the subway downtown. After a late afternoon lunch at a nearby Chipotle, we struck out on foot for the Tower.

Canada's National (or CN Tower).  It was the tallest tower in the world until a structure recently built in Dubai took that title.

The class poses with a moose dressed like a member of the Canadian Mounted Police (or the Mounties) inside the base of the CN Tower.

Three of my students at the tower's main viewing area with the city of Toronto stretching below them.  There is actually a slightly higher viewing area called the Skypod that you can pay extra to go up to, and visitors also have the opportunity to go on the EdgeWalk in which they are strapped into harnesses and walk around the outside ledge of the tower.  I didn't have the funds for either of these extras, and the latter activity would likely have been a waste of money even if I'd had it (and even if the students' parents had gone for it, which I'm certain they wouldn't) as I think most of the kids would likely have chickened out at the last minute (and really, who could blame them).  After all this little number below was scary enough:

The Glass Floor, is a section of the tower with a glass floor that enables you to look straight down to the ground below.  It's quite an experience, I must say.  I physically felt my body recoiling at standing on the glass in the form of a tingling sensation in my legs and feet whenever I looked down.  It took a few of the students awhile before they were brave enough to edge out on to the class.

Hanging out on the glass

Like The Empire State building, the CN Tower features an outdoor viewing area as well.  It's smaller than the Empire State building (which really doesn't have much of an indoor viewing area), and completely enclosed in sturdy wire mesh.

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