With the future of Casa Loma up in the air, the City of Toronto is looking for ways to ensure its long-term viability.
Councillors Josh Matlow and Joe Mihevc held a public meeting Nov. 26, bringing local stakeholders together to discuss the possibility of opening a Museum of Toronto in the castle along with other concepts that could make the historic site more self-sustainable.
The city took the facility over from the Kiwanis Club in 2008 when Kiwanis had difficulty with upkeep and costs. With the city unable to keep Casa Loma going in its current form due to budgetary constraints, council approved the notion of looking into multi-year lease agreements with private operators in October.
Matlow has been a vocal proponent of starting up a Museum of Toronto on the site, noting many other world-class cities have a museum dedicated to telling their histories. He cited Montreal’s small, 8,000 square foot museum and Chicago’s enormous 250,000 square foot museum as examples.
“Chicago’s a perfect example,” he said. “It’s one place where you can walk through the facility and just learn (the city’s) stories. You get a sense of who and what that city is when you leave.”
Mihevc pointed out Casa Loma stands in a history-rich area of the city, with facilities such as the Spadina House Museum, the Tollkeepers’ Cottage and the City of Toronto Archives all nearby, making Casa Loma a good site for a possible museum.
“This is a very historically rich part of the city,” he said.
Some of the obstacles facing such a project include the fact the main building still requires considerable work to keep it ship-shape and the fact Casa Loma properties north of Austin Terrace – including the stables and hunting lodge – do not have heating, washrooms or other amenities.
The city has already poured $20 million into repairs on the castle itself with more funding needed and an expected $15 million to $20 million required to refurbish the area north of Austin Terrace.
“By and large, that area has not had much attention (paid) to it in the last 20 years,” said City of Toronto general manager of economic development and culture Mike Williams. “It’s hugely, hugely under-utilized and has been for a long time, unfortunately.”
The concept of building a Museum of Toronto in Casa Loma is only one possibility for the site. It could also be used as an event space or for a mixture of purposes.
The city is putting out a request for proposal qualifications to find out which third parties might wish to work out a lease agreement, with applications due in February of next year.
Beyond that, the city expects to select a group of applicants and accept requests of proposal from them in early May, with the preferred proposal chosen in late spring or early summer of next year.
Williams said he aims to see the castle used for purposes that would still allow some form of public access.
“There will not be a hotel here,” he said after one audience member expressed concern private developers could use it in such a way that would see it cut off to visitors.
He pointed out he will do everything he can to ensure it does not meet the same fate as the now-closed Toronto Maritime Museum and Guild Inn.
“We have some sad stories here and it’s my job to make sure we don’t repeat them,” he said.
Attendees at the meeting were invited to share their thoughts, with ideas ranging from turning the old hunting lodge into a dining, tea and event area, adding shuttle buses to the site, a children’s museum or creating an immersive history campus with hands-on activities for students.
While the site faces difficulties, Mihevc said he was confident the strong philanthropic nature of Torontonians would provide the boost needed to keep Casa Loma successful. He cited the success of Wychwood Barns as a prime example.
“It is about the money, but it’s also about the compelling vision,” he said. “If you get the vision, the money comes.”