We arrived at Gillette’s Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut, just as the staff had put the final touches on the holiday trimmings.
We were almost alone in the vast castle, and as we photographed each room, we sensed an aura of serenity and contentment about the place, possibly actuated by some manifestation of gentle ghosts of Christmases Past – and all the wonderful decorations that surrounded us.
This is the story of how the castle came to be.
William Gillette was a renowned American actor and playwright who portrayed Sherlock Holmes over 1,300 times in stage adaptions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Gillette’s long popularity on stage and added fame from starring in early silent films, including one called Sherlock Holmes, brought him a commensurate fortune and a desire for off-stage seclusion.
At one point in his career, he looked to bucolic Connecticut for his solitude, and in 1914 he commissioned a strange and mysterious 24-room castle to be constructed on a 184-acre bluff overlooking the Connecticut River.
Gillette personally designed the anomalous castle and many of its interior furnishings. He called his estate “The Seventh Sister,” because the purlieu was the southernmost of the Seven Sisters Hills that stretch along the Connecticut River Valley.
The castle was built to Gillette’s exact specifications and completed in 1919. There are stunning views of the shimmering waters of the Connecticut River far below; it is exquisitely serene.
Gillette was a celebrity in many spheres of influence — stage, radio, film, books — and he held at least five US patents, one for the first sophisticated sound effects machine. Much of Gillette’s creative genius is displayed in his castle. Visitors will quickly see that he took a different approach to defining country living for the aristocracy of his time.
Unique castle features
William Gillette created what is believed to be the first fire sprinkler system used in a building. A huge tank of water was installed in a room high above the main floor and could be activated by a valve that would spray water through pipes hidden in the ceiling.
Another feature of the castle is its unique indoor surveillance system. Designed more for fun than spying, Gillette arranged mirrors in the Great Hall so he could observe the coming and going of people in the house from his bedroom.
From his bedroom position he could also see reflections of guests trying to open his mysterious liquor cabinet. Gillette took great pleasure in watching frustrated visitors, and then magically appearing to solve the enigma of the locked cabinet, just as Sherlock Holmes would have done.
There is much to discover here that is not immediately obvious. It is reputed that no nails were used in the construction of Gillette’s Castle – ingenious if true. Beams are held into place with large iron rods, stone is used as an art form as well as an engineering necessity. Light switches are made of carved wood, as are door mechanisms and window blocks.
Each room in the castle is like a character in one of Gillette’s plays. Light streams through the fretted windows of every chamber, illuminating each to an unusual mood.
One curious mystery is why Gillette used hospital-style white metal beds throughout his castle.
Gillette’s Aunt Polly
William Gillette registered his cruiser-houseboat in the name of “Aunt Polly” in 1905. He added 40 feet to her length, making her 144 feet long, and she was almost 19 feet wide. She weighed 200 tons and had all the comforts of a luxury yacht of the time
The story of the Aunt Polly is as significant in Gillette’s life as was his Seventh Sister estate home.
William Gillette was married only once, and his beloved wife Helen died in 1888, just a few years after the nuptials; they had no children.
After Helen’s death, William secluded himself in Thousand Pines, his 500-acre summer estate in Tryon, North Carolina, where he resided off and on until 1910. At that time in his life he was suffering from an illness some thought was tuberculosis. A local resident he called “Aunt Polly” nursed Gillette back to health, and as one token of his gratitude he named his cherished cruising houseboat after her.
It was also at Thousand Pines that Gillette showed his skill at wood carving and his admiration for house cats. Henry Zecher, in his book entitled William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes, indicated that he had as many as 75 cats living in and around his dwelling on the estate.
The Aunt Polly was moored at the base of the Seventh Sister for the four-year term of the castle’s construction. Gillette enjoyed living aboard the Polly with his favorite cat, Angelina, who shared a nightly dinner at his table.
The Aunt Polly burned at her dock in 1935, but fortunately several furnishings, including a piano, were saved and moved to the castle where they are currently displayed.
The Seventh Sister Railroad
The estate had its own railroad and Gillette enjoyed commanding the throttle and touring guests along three miles of narrow-gauge track at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. After Gillette’s death in 1937, the engine and railroad cars were sold.
Gillette’s “Grand Central Station” is now a picnic area with stone carvings of Gillette’s beloved cats sitting on the roof. Had the railroad been maintained, it would no doubt have added greatly to the attraction of the castle, but at the expense of some wonderful hiking trails that replaced the tracks.
The state of Connecticut acquired the Seventh Sister estate in 1943 and converted it to Gillette Castle State Park.
Gillette’s Castle is a top tourist attraction in Connecticut. The park’s substantial Visitor’s Center was closed during our visit, but we are told that it is an excellent introduction to the castle and grounds and should not be missed. For more information about Gillette’s Castle State Park, look at their website here.
A visit into Gillette Castle is a step across the threshold of time to a golden era where personal luxury was a given and attention to architectural detail a watchword. We recommend the experience hardily.
If you go
The park is located at 67 River Road in East Haddam, Connecticut.
From I-91S: take Exit 22. Route 9S, Exit 7, for a bridge crossing of the Connecticut River. Follow route 82E and park signs. From I-95N or S: take Exit 69. Route 9N to Exit 6 or 7. For the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, use Exit 6. Follow Route 148 and park signs. The ferry operates spring through fall.
Note: The famous Goodspeed Opera House is just across the river and less than five miles from the castle.
© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff