In the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighborhood, nestled at the corner of Spadina and Lowther, stands its oldest apartment known as Spadina Gardens. Alluding to Toronto’s original architecture, the complex was built in the early 20th century, boasting high ceilings, intricate stained-glass designs, and naturally lit apartments.
But while such a historical building has been around for decades, its fate has become a focal point of contention between conservationists and developers. And it’s a battle that has been vividly captured in Jamie Kastner’s latest documentary, Charlotte’s Castle.
The film follows the passionate fight led by long-standing residents, like Charlotte Mickie—who has lived in Spadina Gardens since 1993—against the plans of the new owners, a Dutch company that aims to renovate the space with more 21st century styles.
Kastner and Mickie, who have known each other as acquaintances over the years, connected over this documentary when Kastner’s own building received a heritage destination—leading him to uncover an even more historical jewel: the Spadina Gardens.
“This building was a kind of fascinating slice of Toronto’s culture and was tied to so many remarkable people,” he says. That’s why, during the documentary, Kastner carefully sets the scene, taking viewers into the apartments, rich with art, books, and other intricate décor.
“I guess I had an aim for what I wanted to accomplish with this film in terms of capturing the cultural heart of it that was in danger of disappearing, but I had no idea how I was going to do that,” he says. “But through [the people who live at Spadina Gardens], their stories of this amazing building, the visuals, and discovering all the history, we got to share a linchpin story.”
For Mickie and her allies in the preservation battle, the fight is about protecting a home that has meant so much to them and is considered an architectural gem in Toronto’s history.
“The tenants in the building like to entertain. There are so many really wonderful, memorable moments in this space that have involved bringing community together,” she said. Another fond memory? For Mickie, it’s the occasional burst of sunlight that hits her apartment, that inspires her to constantly snap photos throughout the day.
Kastner also features many photographs from over the years, in the documentary, to emphasize the vital place Spadina Gardens has on Toronto’s cultural and architectural history.
The building, in fact, has a rich history, with notable residents including Sir Henry Pellatt, the original owner of Casa Loma, and opera singer Maureen Forrester. The building has also hosted renowned authors such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Gabriel García Márquez at literary gatherings. And, as Kastner mentions, it even provided shelter to Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah’s fatwa.
While many tenants were interviewed for the piece, what also makes Charlotte’s Castle interesting is hearing from the perspectives of the new building owners. A feat, Kastner says, wasn’t too difficult to incorporate.
“I always approach stories with a journalistic base and believe in talking to both sides of a story and giving each their fair say,” he says. “It was a long conversation with the landlord. I initially I started out with a notion of looking at heritage, but once the focus became clear that it was going to be on this building, they were happy to participate.”
But while the documentary focuses heavily on Toronto housing and history, it is a story that Kastner says, can resonate with all.
“I believe that this is a story that speaks to many people in a number of ways: both in terms of people’s feeling about their homes and about their relationships to the culture their city,” he says. “It is a housing crisis story and that is a global story. I’ve often shied away from topics that seem too Canadian, but this film has been taken up in France by an agency and has found fans in New York and elsewhere—where people can relate what is going on in their city and what is at risk of being lost.”
As for the fate of Spadina Gardens? The documentary alludes to the proceedings of the Toronto’s Heritage Board and that the building is still at risk.
You can watch Charlotte’s Castle on TVO.com.