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Casa Loma: Finding Edwardian England in Toronto

If Casa Loma, the Edwardian castle perched above the modern city of Toronto, had been built in United States, no one would have batted an eye. At five acres, it wouldn’t compete with the American odes to excess built by the Hearsts and the Vanderbilts. But for reserved Canadians who distrust grandiosity, there lies a fairy tale chateau near the corner of Davenport and Spadina that is sometimes referred to as “Pellatt’s Folly.”

Think Thomas Edison – Ontario businessman Henry Pellatt was a visionary that saw potential in transitioning the sometimes dangerous gas lighting lining the city’s streets into more stable, brighter electrical lighting. After also using his acumen to build a fortune in the railroad and mining industries, he was knighted in 1905 and commissioned Canadian architect E.J. Lennox to build Casa Loma (Spanish for “The House on the Hill”). When it opened in 1914, it was the largest private residence in Canada.

It took me two subway transfers and a jaunt up 110 stairs to reach the Gothic Revival castle and begin my self guided tour. The 20 meter high Great Hall greeted me with colorful flags representing Ontario and the United Kingdom hanging from the ceiling and dark walnut paneling lining the walls. It reminded me of a scene out of “Downton Abbey” – Casa Loma is often described as Edwardian, which refers to the short reign of King Edward VII at the turn of the 20th century that is sometimes looked back upon as a simpler era before the horrors of World War I.

In addition to the grandeur of this 98-room estate, it also has its share of servant staircases, secret passageways and the oldest wine cellar in Toronto. On the garden terrace, you can get a perfect view of the CN Tower rising above downtown. Up on the third floor, you can learn about Canadian military history as Sir Henry Pellatt was once Commanding Officer of a militia regiment called The Queen’s Own Rifles.

Casa Loma has been the setting for many movies including “Chicago” and “Cocktail” and on the lower level you can view film clips showcasing the building. (When I was there, it was showing the scene in “Cocktail” where Tom Cruise’s character goes to meet the wealthy father of the woman he got pregnant – makes me want to go back and watch the movie again.)

So why is it called “Pellatt’s Folly”? Some thought the castle was garish and the architectural elements such as the towers and crenellations led to “delusions of grandeur.” It may also survive because World War I and the faltering post-war Canadian economy hit Pellatt’s fortune hard, necessitating the sale of Casa Loma less than ten years after moving in.

Sadly, most of the furniture is not original as a lot of it was sold to pay off the family’s debts but the rooms have been restored to what they would have looked like – one guest bedroom is decorated in the Chinoiserie style of 17th century Europe and is adorned with a Chinese screen featuring soapstone carvings of flowers and trees and a mother of pearl peacock.

As with many historic landmarks, it was once faced with demolition and sat vacant during the Depression. The city of Toronto took ownership in 1933 and considered many uses for the building, including as a permanent residence for the Dionne quintuplets. The Kiwanis of West Toronto stepped in and ran it as a tourist attraction for 75 years. Today, approximately 350,000 visitors each year stop at the house and gardens once referred to as “a mixture of 17th century Scottish baronial and 20th Century Fox.”

Visiting a sacred place in Carmel-by-the-Sea

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo is the other name of the grounds more commonly known as the Carmel Mission. After visiting, I felt the long name was fitting as the sprawling land is not only home to the mission church, but a complex that also houses an extensive museum, cemetery and garden. I’ve been to other missions before that, while beautiful, solely consist of the old church. You could spend an entire afternoon here learning about the area’s history.

Okay, so you could do this mainly because of California’s mild weather – I visited on a sunny 60 degree day in February, where tourists strolled the upscale, walkable “downtown” area of Carmel consisting mainly of cute shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms and bed and breakfasts. Approximately one mile down Junipero Avenue brings you to the Carmel Mission, which will be celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2020. Before you step through the small doorway, a sign reminds me that I’m in California: “This is an unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe inside or near unreinforced masonry buildings during an earthquake.”

A statue of Junipero Serra looms before me as I step onto the garden grounds. The Carmel Mission took on additional significance last year, as Pope Francis declared Serra, the founder of the mission, a saint. It’s a new chapter for the popular pilgrimage site that was also visited by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Originally located in Monterey, Serra moved the mission to nearby Carmel to be closer to something Californians will still appreciate today…water. It became the headquarters for the California mission system, with Serra himself founding nine missions between 1769 and 1782.

The smell of fresh cut flowers and the sounds of Spanish being spoken surround me as I watch my step due to the uneven floor surfaces of the basilica and museum highlighting the daily life of the people who once lived here. Unfortunately my first visit to this national historic landmark was brief but I’m sure I will entertain thoughts of returning as another Minnesota winter rears its ugly head. 

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