May 28, 2014
Gillette Castle, Once Home of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, Opens Season of Tours
Once upon a time, so the story goes, a famous stage actor and playwright was sailing on the Connecticut River when he saw a group of seven stunning hills overlooking the river. The actor had been planning on building a retirement home on Long Island in the Hamptons but seeing these seven summits, called The Seven Sisters, rising above the banks of the river changed his mind. This would be the site of his new home.
Over a five-year span between 1914 and 1919, atop the southernmost of the Seven Sisters, the actor designed and built a house of stone and steel that was like no other. The actor was named William Hooker Gillette and the stone edifice he built would one day be called Gillette Castle, a place that still houses unsolved mysteries.
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Amid the landscape of Connecticut castles, Gillette Castle is king. The iconic new world castle was purchased by the state of Connecticut in 1943, along with the 184 acres it was on (and the park has since been expanded to encompass more than 200 acres). Today, the park and castle comprise one of the state's biggest tourist attractions, drawing roughly 300,000 visitors a year.
Last weekend Gillette Castle opened its doors for the summer season (though Gillette Castle State Park is open year-round the castle itself is only open for tours from 10 to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day).
Visiting Gillette on a recent afternoon, it’s easy to see what draws people. The castle is built of chalk white and gray local fieldstone, supported by a steel frame that can’t be seen from the outside. The structure’s striking design and stone exterior provokes the imagination to such an extent that Bill Mattioli, the supervisor who oversees the park, sometimes has to set enthusiastic but historically misinformed guests straight.
“No King Arthur never lived here and no he didn’t pull the sword out of the rock here,” Mattioli explains with a laugh. He adds that Gillette did not refer to it as a castle and “castle” only became part of the building’s name after the state purchased it.
Visitors can travel to Gillette by car or via the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry across the Connecticut River in Chester. (Read our story about Connecticut’s historic ferries)
Mattioli advises the latter.
“I would recommend taking the ferry over here if you have the choice because those are the best views of the castle,” he says. “You are at the bottom of the mountain and you’re looking up and you’re seeing that majestic castle and you’re getting vantage points that you will not get here.”
(Right: Gillette Castle as seen from the Connecticut River. Memorial Day weekend photograph by our Verticals Editor Douglas P. Clement.)
Though the castle’s exterior is impressive, it’s a trip inside that truly provides a glimpse into Gillette’s eccentric genius.
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Born in 1843 in Hartford, Connecticut, Gillette’s father was a former U.S. Senator and a staunch crusader for the abolition of slavery. Instead of politics, the younger Gillette was drawn to the stage, where he excelled. By the 1880s he was a successful playwright, actor and director. He was also an innovator behind the scenes and was known for devising realistic stage settings and special sound and lighting effects. In the mid 1880s he received a patent for a new method of simulating the sound of a horse galloping (and during his life he also received patents for several non-theater related inventions). But his most influential role was yet to come.
In the mid 1890s Gillette was approached by Arthur Conan Doyle and asked to adapt Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories into a play. Gillette agreed and wrote a play based on Doyle’s character, he also starred as Holmes. As Damned Connecticut writes, Gillette “gave the character his iconic deerstalker cap, pipe and catchphrase ‘Oh this is elementary, my dear fellow,’ (which was later bastardized into ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’).”
Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was widely successful and brought the actor more fame and significantly more fortune. When he had Gillette Castle built he designed it in a way that would make Holmes proud; it’s a modern madhouse full of mystery, intricate designs, fine craftsmanship and beauty.
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Gillette Castle tours are self-guided, but there are staff members in each room eager to explain the room’s significance and point out some of its eccentricities. You enter the castle into a poorly lit dungeon-like room. Near the staircase leading to the rest of the house there’s a secret door from which Gillette would emerge swiftly and unexpectedly to theatrically welcome/startle his guests.
In the rest of the house other oddities abound. The woodwork within the castle is hand-hewn southern white oak. There are built-in couches, a heated bed, an early fire suppression system, a movable table on tracks, light switches made of carved wood, and 47 doors (each one different from the other and each featuring an intricate carved system of Steampunk-like latches). There are also the most finely crafted cat toys you’re ever likely to see—Gillette was most certainly a cat person, at one point he had as many as 17 felines living in his castle.
In addition to these unusual features, the staff at the castle makes sure to point out that in the house’s sprawling great hall there are a series of mirrors. One of these mirrors allowed Gillette to look out his bedroom door and see which guests were arriving and leaving, and others allowed him to play good natured pranks on his guests, including a favorite prank involving spying on guests invited to open a specially designed bar that could be rigged to open only for Gillette.
The castle is also home to things you won’t see on the tour and mysteries that even Gillette’s alter ego, Holmes, would have trouble solving.
“There’s a secret room in there but unfortunately it’s in a spot where the fire marshal doesn’t let us take the public because there’s only one way in and one way out,” Mattioli explains. “[To get to the secret room] you have to reach up and pull down a handle and then the stairwell will open and then you climb up there. It’s a very small room but it has a fireplace. My question is: Here’s a guy who has a 24-room mansion, lived by himself, his wife had passed away many years ago, he didn’t have any children of his own, why did he need a secret room? Why?”
Maybe that enduring mystery was what the actor with an obvious flare for the dramatic had in mind. Close to 80 years after Gillette’s death the accomplishments of his stage career are often overlooked but the house he built upon a hill all those years ago remains in the spotlight where it continues to delight audiences and serves as his never ending curtain call.