Alison Garwood Jones

Henry Pellatt’s Strength

March 27, 2023

Yesterday I climbed the staircase that takes you up and over the steep, ancient shore cliff of Lake Iroquois with my eye set on reaching the turreted mansion on the summit.

I’ve lived in Toronto since 2000. But, for whatever reason, I had yet to check out Casa Loma, built in 1911. Maybe its vibe was too Medieval Times for my taste. Or maybe my preference for post-WWI history was stopping me. I now suspect I had to get through all five seasons Downton Abbey — which only happened last year — to open my mind to this showpiece from Toronto’s fluttering red, white and blue Empire-worshipping past.

Casa Loma gardens -photo by Trip AdvisorPhoto: Trip Advisor

Henry Pellatt, its owner with his wife Mary, had the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, the wardrobe of Edward the VII (who knighted him in 1905), and the entrepreneurial thrust of Andrew Carnegie.

Henry Pellatt's bedroom decor.Henry Pellatt’s bedroom decor. Photo by Alison Garwood-Jones

How did Pellatt amass his fortune? “Sir Henry harnessed the power of Niagara Falls to electrify the streets of Toronto.” This appeared on the historical plaque at the bottom of the stairs. Good writing always makes me want to get up and move. And with that one sentence — and not my hours at the gym — I was inside the castle faster than I thought possible.

I spent most of my time in the library because that’s what I do when I’m visiting someone’s home (bathroom tours are also top of my list). Of the thousands of books still housed inside the glass cases of Pellatt’s chandeliered library, I happened upon the autobiography of Andrew Carnegie first …. followed several books over by Emmet’s Principles and Practice of Gynecology. As I write this, with only the fumes of my good instincts to lean on, I suspect that this tome was added to the shelf by Mary. By all accounts, Pellatt was a faithful husband and a kind and fair employer to the scullery maids and butlers in his charge, even with all that money. And he liked strong women.

Bookshelves at Casa Loma - photo Alison Garwood-JonesCasa Loma library shelves. By Alison Garwood-Jones
Library books at Casa Loma by Alison Garwood-JonesCasa Loma library shelves. By Alison Garwood-Jones

Mary was a tea-pouring, live-out-loud champion of women’s rights. She brought the Girl Guide movement to Canada, which empowered young girls to surpass the lady-like limitations placed on them and, instead, go for their fire, electrician, first-aid, and aeronautics badges. Meaning, she too electrified the city. With her ideas.

Casa Loma Girl Guide DisplayThe Girl Guide display on the 2nd floor. By Alison Garwood-Jones

The thrill was short-lived. The Pellatts only lived in the castle for 8 party-throwing years. In a cascading series of events — including bad land deals, a bank collapse, rising property taxes, and Mary’s death — Henry, the Edwardian industrialist, lost everything and was forced out of his castle.

He bounced around for another 20 years, living in a series of progressively smaller residences. In his final years, Pellatt moved into the depression-era clapboard bungalow of Thomas Ridgway, his former chauffeur.

Thomas Ridgway's bungalow in Mimaco. From The Pellatt newsreel: The Man Who Built Casa Loma

Sir Henry moved into Thomas Ridgway’s bungalow in Mimaco. Ridway was his former chauffeur. Photo: from the documentary, The Pellatt Newsreel: The man who built Casa Loma

At his apex, Pellatt’s business ventures amounted to 25% of the Canadian economy. He managed it all from a desk he had copied from Napoleon.

Sir Henry Pellatt mannequin by Walt WizardA lifelike model of Sir Henry on the third floor. A creation of Walt Wizard. Photo by Alison Garwood-Jones

I got the full story of his fall from a documentary looping in the basement of the castle. A small movie theatre has been set up at the bottom of a concrete swimming pool that was still in construction when Pellatt was forced to move out. It was like sitting inside a tomb.

But, like Teddy Roosevelt, Pellatt was somehow able to look past all he had lost and focus on all he had experienced — the love of Mary and the steady friendship of people like Ridgway, and meeting the King. When the Kiwanis Club of Toronto opened Casa Loma to the public in 1937, Pellatt stood in the sunshine at the podium of the ceremony and, without an ounce of self-pity, welcomed the good people of his city into his former home. I can only imagine the strength that took.


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