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Gillette Castle, Sherlock Holmes’ Connecticut Home

Actor William Gillette, who created the detective on stage, built the ofbeat mansion

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Gillette Castle looks like a medieval fortress – well, sort of — but it was the private home of William Gillette, famous as an actor who played Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette, a bit of an eccentric, designed many of the castle’s quirky features himself, but it took 20 men five years to finish it. It sits high above the Connecticut River in East Haddam. A 184-acre park surrounds it. The State of Connecticut took over the castle in 1943, renaming it Gillette Castle State Park. Then Connecticut thoughtfully opened the castle and walking trails to the public.

The castle

William Gillette

Gillette was born in the Nook Farm neighborhood of Hartford in 1853. His parents belonged to Connecticut’s aristocracy: His father, Francis, a strong abolitionist, served as a U.S senator. His mother, Elisabeth, was descended from Thomas Hooker, the Puritan leader who founded Hartford.

The Gillettes had several prominent neighbors: Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Twain wrote a play called The Gilded Age and suggested 22-year-old William perform in it. The young man had already begun his acting career in New Orleans – not to his father’s liking. But Francis Gillette had lost one son to war and another to tuberculosis, so he reluctantly supported his youngest son’s ambitions.

Gillette in Secret Service, a play he wrote

Critics didn’t always love William Gillette, but audiences did. He wrote and staged plays, bringing a new realism to acting and theatrical sets. But he achieved enduring fame by devising the visual image of Sherlock Holmes we know today. Gillette, with the blessing of the detective’s creator, A Conan Doyle, put on a deerstalker hat, long traveling cape and calabash pipe. He then played Holmes on stage and on the silent screen for 33 years.

Gillette Castle

Gillette had a brief, happy marriage to Helen Nichols, who died of peritonitis six years after their wedding. They had no children, and he never remarried. When not working, he lived on a houseboat. Gillette hired a wealthy young Japanese immigrant, Yukitaka Osaki, as his assistant, and the two stayed close for decades. (Osaki’s older brother became mayor of Tokyo and gave Washington its cherry trees.)

Gillette built the castle as a retirement home. By castle standards, it isn’t huge – just 24 rooms . The three-story structure was built of wood, cement and Connecticut field stone with a steel frame. Inside, Gillette designed the rooms in the Arts and Crafts style, using local materials crafted by local artisans.

Inside Gillette Castle

He had mechanical aptitude and a sense of whimsy, along with enough money to indulge both. The unusual stone house is the result, with inventive locking devices, trick mirrors and unorthodox furniture. He built an 18-inch gauge train to go around the grounds, something guests like Albert Einstein and Calvin Coolidge enjoyed.

He lived there in the castle from 1919 until his death in 1937.

The Neighborhood

East Haddam, a charming rural town in the Lower Connecticut River Valley, can be reached by a historic ferry. The current Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, a “quaint wonder,” has been running since 1949 and costs only $5 per vehicle. It deposits its passengers near Gillette Castle.

East Haddam from the river

East Haddam has a number of 18th and 19th century homes in its historic district, along with the Goodspeed Opera House.

One way to see the Gillette Castle is by the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat ride, which runs from May through October. The 2-1/2-hour historic train ride begins at the Essex Station and runs for a 12-mile round trip through the quintessential New England towns and unspoiled parts of the Connecticut River Valley. Then comes an hour-long riverboat ride along the Connecticut River on the Becky Thatcher, where passengers will see Gillette’s Castle, Goodspeed Opera House and Haddam Swing Bridge.

Five things You’ll Remember About Gillette Castle

Woodwork

Gillette designed and local woodworkers carved several dozen wood: doors with complicated wooden locking mechanisms. He designed whimsical light switches to look like switches on a train engine.

Original Furniture

You can tell Gillette lived on a boat. The house has built-in couches, and a movable table and desk chair on tracks.  One table has moveable pieces hanging from it. Gillette loved cats – he once had 17 — and they loved to bat the table ornaments.

Bedroom in Gillette Castle

Stained Glass Windows.

Gillette brightened the inside of his stone castle with plenty of colored light. Tiffany designed several of the light fixtures. There’s also an unusual stained glass window that looks as if someone threw confetti at it.

Mirrors

Gillette had mirrors placed around the house so he could check on visitors. From his room he could check the mirrors at the far end of the Great Hall and decide whether to greet the visitor or stay in his room.

He could also watch guests try to open the tricky latch to his liquor cabinet after he ostensibly went to bed.

Spectacular Views

The grounds alone are worth a visit even when the castle doesn’t open for tours. The old estate still has remnants of Gillette’s railroad, a stone picnic pavilion, a goldfish pond, a tunnel, wooden bridges and hiking trails. Visitors rate the view of the Connecticut River as spectacular, especially in the fall.

Gillette Castle in winter

If You Visit…

You are strongly recommended to call ahead to order a ticket and reserve a time to tour the Gillette Castle.  Leave some time to check out the visitors’ center, which has articles, photos and a short film about William Gillette. There’s also a gift shop.

Don’t let the summer heat deter you – the castle has air conditioning.

You’ll find parking easily in a big paved lot with handicapped spaces in front. The house, though, has stairs that the mobility-impaired might find troublesome.

You can skip the house, as the state park is open year-round from dawn to sundown. Pack lunch and enjoy it on a picnic table near the pond, or you can buy lunch at the restaurant., Sherlock’s Grill. The restrooms have won praise for their cleanliness.

Check the website — https://www.gillettecastlefriends.org/history-of-the-castle — for more information.


Images: Gillette Castle from below: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Gillette Castle from the Connecticut River, East Haddam, Connecticut. United States East Haddam Connecticut, 2011. October. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012631702/. Bedroom:  By Magnus Bäck – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20727652. Gillette Castle with snow By Shikai fang – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82311659. Gillette Castle interior By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27731693. East Haddam By Ahymander – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=144079816.

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