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Celebrating its 10th anniversary (in 2012) since reopening to the public in 2002, Gillette Castle in Connecticut now attracts over 300,000 visitors a year – yet it’s virtually unknown internationally as a tourist attraction, with access to it only via beautiful, winding country roads. Andrew L. Urban drove out to see what’s so special about it.

No plans have ever been found for what is now known as Gillette Castle, overlooking the Connecticut River from its hillside position 43 metres above the 200 year old Chester-Hadlyme Ferry. This is especially strange since the building is extraordinary in detail and concept. Each of its 47 timber doors, for example, is different, with their hand carved ribs and other decorations making each one a unique work of art – or at least high quality craft.

Gillette Castle (Photo by Louise Keller)

The signature look of the building with its rock lined exterior gives it a somewhat gothic – or even medieval - appearance, although the interiors are more relaxed and warmed by well worked oak beams and handrails, plus extensive use of matting wall coverings. (Rocks are plentiful in Connecticut, thanks to the ancient glaciers which deposited millions of them. Gillette paid locals $1 per cartload during construction.)

"Gillette spent the best part of 30 years playing Sherlock Holmes on stage."

William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937) – no relation to the sword and razor makers – was an actor, playwright and director. His most notable contributions to theatre were realistic stage, sound and lighting effects. 

Gillette spent the best part of 30 years playing Sherlock Holmes on stage. In 1898, Gillette had contacted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for permission to make some modest changes for his first stage adaptation – Doyle couldn’t care less, apparently, and wished him well.

The Living Room (Photo by Louise Keller)

Gillette went on to make some 1,300 appearances as the legendary pipe smoking, violin playing detective with the distinctive deerstalker hat – a characterisation that shaped Sherlock Holmes thereafter. He also starred in a silent Sherlock Holmes movie and played the character on radio twice. 

In his good years, Gillette would make a reported $250,000 – the 2012 equivalent of well over $5 million. Today’s thespians eat your heart out.

"to his own very specific design"

He built the house in 1914 to his own very specific design, down to the smallest detail; all the light switches, for instance, are miniature, timber levers, all hand carved as is every piece of timber in the house. There was no Mrs Gillette to help or hinder him; she had died in 1888 at the early age of 28 with a burst appendix, and left William heartbroken – and severely depressed. So much so he didn’t work for six years and had to be nursed by his Aunt Polly. He eventually moved on and lived alone on a houseboat.

Shortly after the turn of the century, well on his feet again and making good money touring as Sherlock Holmes around Eastern US, Europe, and Britain, Gillette was cruising on his houseboat up the Connecticut River when he spotted the hill that is the 7th of the Seven Sisters range. He recognised its fabulous position, bought several dozen hectares and soon began to build his dream home. The only evidence that he didn’t physically build it himself is a stone plaque at the entrance with the builder’s name on it: Porteus-Walker Co. 

Evidently a thorough man, Gillette then built his own little winding railroad to connect the house with the river below. Although this has been dismantled, the ‘station’ at the top of the hill remains as a monument to his grand vision.

"The 180 degree view ... is breathtaking"

The 180 degree view from the main balcony along the river is breathtaking; the grounds are full of trees, but closer to the house the Friends of Gillette maintain colourful flower beds.

The house is large but not so large as to be overwhelming. It has only three bedrooms, each with its own en suite bathroom with full bath, but Gillette was as concerned about accommodating his books and his paintings as his house guests, so he built a separate library and a private art gallery, as well as a serious study for himself.

The room dedicated to his brother Robert, who died in the Civil War, is different to every other place in the house. The ceiling is lower, the room features a couple of cabinets holding Robert’s uniform and army sword, the other cabinet housing small memorabilia, including the pistol of his faithful Japanese manservant for many years, Yukitaki Osaki, whose brother was Mayor of Tokyo.

The grounds (Photo by Louise Keller)

The extravagantly large living room – more an entertaining area with a giant rock-built fireplace – opens onto a balcony and sun room and is reminiscent of a theatre stage. The mezzanine gallery that runs on two walls is accessed by a staircase from one side of the room and connects the bedrooms. Opposite the fireplace an open archway leads to the bar. 

"a hidden mirror"

If you step out of Gillette’s master bedroom at the end of the mezzanine and glance downwards roughly in the direction of the fireplace, a hidden mirror reflects the surrounds of the bar – and whoever is helping themselves to its contents.

Elsewhere, secret compartments and doors reveal Gillette’s ingenuity. His desk is equipped with a chair on rollers, and to protect the floor, the rollers are on metal runners. On the right side of the desk, a swivel tray holds an early model telephone. (Gillette built his house the year that saw the birth of the telephone.) 

Cats are everywhere – not live ones anymore – in figurines, paintings, sketches. He shared his love of cats with Mark Twain, who gave him his first acting job and with whom he also shared his unique taste in homes. 

Gillette Castle was built as a home and remains uncluttered by signage of any kind, even though it was acquired by the State of Connecticut in 1943. Gillette didn’t want it falling into the hands of a "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded" according to records. The place looks as if it has just been readied for a new resident, even though some 300,000 people go through it every year, making their way through the Gillette Castle State Park, the most popular of the State’s parks after the three beachside parks on the Atlantic coast.

"a subtle but profound effect"

Getting there is scenic but not speedy; you drive along winding country roads with Connecticut’s plentiful trees as the visual calming devices, as if on the way to a private weekend party at a prestige location.

Gillette Castle has a subtle but profound effect on visitors, no doubt because it is not a theme park but a real home. There is a veracity about the place that communicates the Gillette ethos of a unique culture and his perfectionism, but also of warmth, which is the key to its appeal.

Published May 2012

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Gillette Castle

William Gillette (in 1895)

The Library

The Bar (Photo by Louise Keller)

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