(Canada, 86 min.)
Dir. Jamie Kastner
By Marc Glassman
Even in Toronto’s real estate rich Annex, Spadina Gardens, which houses the apartments at numbers 41 and 45, is a spectacular structure, one filled with gravitas, beauty and history. The red brick building with high ceilings, impressive stained glass designs and sophisticatedly configured apartments is the oldest in Toronto with its original floor plans maintained. Built in the first decade of the 20th century at the corner of Spadina and Lowther, the four-story building confers a sense of prestige to an already beloved neighbourhood.
It turns out that not everyone believes that Spadina Gardens should simply be celebrated. In Jamie Kastner’s insightful documentary Charlotte’s Castle, a battle between conservationists and developers is played out in this, one of Toronto’s grandest buildings. Charlotte Mickie and Bobbi Speck, two long-standing residents of Spadina Gardens, are leading a fight to preserve their apartments and a building they love from a Dutch company, the new owners, who want to change its essential character.
Kastner (There Are No Fakes) is careful to get the local representative from the Dutch landlord to express his philosophy, which matches that of his bosses. Their sensibility is that of contemporary condo developers and architects around the world: create clear, clean surfaces with as few rooms and clutter as possible. Make everything lighter and brighter, eliminating unnecessary texture and complexity in interior design. Anyone who has been to a downtown Toronto high rise office or apartment understands what the modern look is all about: to some, it’s soulless; to others, it’s cool and totally functional.
For Mickie, Speck and their compatriots in the fight to preserve the elegant past—curator/collector Neil MacDonald, former diplomat Rodolfo Maestre and his artist partner Dandi and others—the fight is to keep something beautiful and irreplaceable from going away. Kastner carefully sets the scene, taking us into the apartments, rich with art and books and precious objects, with rooms filled to the brim with artifacts of the past that are truly memorable. It’s a way of life that Mickie and her friends are defending, one that is quickly seeping away.
When the Dutch owners renovate apartments and the buildings’ stairwells, breaking down walls, eradicating floors and old fashioned pocket doors, removing ancient door handles, Charlotte can almost hear the screams of past residents. That may sound quirky but it’s mighty persuasive when you hear her tell it. Kastner takes us back into the past through old photographs and reminisces of past residents, backing up Mickie’s beliefs.
Going back to the earliest days of Spadina Gardens, two of the ground floor apartments were occupied for a time by Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife; he was the original owner of Casa Loma and a man of rare vision in the city. Over the years, many artists and musicians lived there, most notably the great opera singer Maureen Forester, whose children—the acclaimed Kash family—recall for Kastner the fine times they spent at Spadina Gardens. The brilliant publisher Louise Dennys and her partner Ric Young, who lived there in the Eighties and Nineties, remember hosting such award-winning writers as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Gabriel García Márquez at Spadina Gardens literary parties. But their most exciting reminisce is that they harboured Salman Rushdie at their apartment—with security guards surrounding the building–before he made one of his first public appearances after the Ayatollah’s fatwa at the Winter Garden where he was embraced by Premier Bob Rae.
There’s no doubt that Spadina Garden has a place in Toronto’s artistic and architectural history. But should it continue to exist in its old form? Much of the latter part of Kastner’s film is taken up with the proceedings of Toronto’s Heritage Board and its decision regarding the maintenance of the structure of the building—inside and outside. Will Charlotte’s Castle retain its historic validity? Can our children expect to see Spadina Gardens’ apartments—and not just the exterior? Potential viewers should watch Kastner’s sprightly flavourful film to find out part of the answer. To my mind, Kastner had made a film well worth seeing.
Charlotte’s Castle opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sept. 22.
Mea Culpa! I know Charlotte Mickie, Jamie Kastner, Louise Dennys, and Ric Young. And I’ve been in Spadina Gardens. I hope that hasn’t impaired my judgement of a film that reaches no conclusion about modernity versus conservation. It’s an on-going debate.