This morning we took our two little boys to meet some close friends at Casa Loma (Casa Loma : Toronto’s Fairy-Tale Castle and its Owner, Sir Henry Pellatt) in Toronto. I’ve attended a number of events there over the years, but today we went for a pirate show that had us looking for treasure all over the castle.

I have a thing for old buildings. I sometimes imagine that I can feel a personality about them, lurking behind a doorway, or winking at me from an upper window. If I were to describe the personality of Casa Loma, I would liken it to that of a dear old uncle who loves to play hide and seek. I picture the kind of man who dresses well but doesn’t mind getting down on his hands and knees to play horsey with his nieces and nephews. It seems fitting that the old mansion is now a place where children can go and dream of being pirates, princesses, or ghost hunters. It is a building designed to celebrate life; so far it is fulfilling that design perfectly as host to weddings, company celebrations, and events for children.

Today we followed a pirate leader who read directions from his treasure map. I watched my boys stride and roll from side to side in his path, and for a brief moment, I too was in that childhood place where anything is possible and the world ahead seems magical. We wandered through bright bedrooms, dark hallways, and up winding staircases in our search for hidden treasure.

My favourite room in Casa Loma is the conservatory at the east end of the building — its huge windows fill the room with sunlight and warmth. The floors are polished marble and plants line the walls, giving the air in the room an almost tropical quality. The room seems to be enchanted. Was I feeling the beauty of the craftsmanship, or could I somehow be touching the soul of the architect playing in the spaces we too played in?

I don’t know if I will ever truly understand what art is all about, but there seems to be a kind of duel between a spirit of excellence and outrageousness in the halls and cavernous rooms of Casa Loma. I’ve always thought of art as something that beautifully captures a human universe. Art takes an idea that we all relate to (hardship, grandeur, magnificence, peace) and captures it in one beautiful instant or a sequence of instants. A building, for example, captures the spirit of art when it is able to cause a sense of grandeur, harmony, or create a feeling of peace in those who walk through it. So too music, or words, a painting, or sculpture can capture and portray in one moment a universal idea.

Over the centuries, people have debated the definition of art, partly I think because it isn’t easy to create, and only a few every century actually achieve art. But the importance of art is in its ability to value ideas that give us a sense of humanity – love, knowledge, ethics, beauty, excellence.

Perhaps I connect to the human spirit in buildings more easily because I am a writer and buildings are in some ways very much like words — they give shape to ideas and protect them against time and the elements.

Sarah Thomson can be reached at


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