Perched, prominently high above the scenic Connecticut River on what is referred to as one of the Seven Sister hilltops in the town of East Haddam sits William Gillette’s crowning opus; Gillette’s Castle. Constructed 100 years ago, the rocky monument to creativity, unique architecture and splendid imagination recently celebrated its historic anniversary. Today it provides the perfect vantage point to take in the iconic colors of Connecticut’s famed fall foliage.
Visibly from the Connecticut River, it is reported that while the prominent playwright, actor and Connecticut native was enjoying a leisurely trip up the river on his houseboat the “Aunt Polly” Gillette spotted the site, which he fell head over heels in love with and changed his plans from building his retirement home in the Hamptons, on Long Island, to instead creating his masterful, iconic and totally unique dwelling in the rural town of East Haddam, CT.
Built of stone and steel, the massive, 14,000 square foot, three story structure peers out ominously over the River as its fieldstone bridges and trestles welcome visitors to the innards of the eccentric castle, where no two, of the myriad of 47 doors is alike.
With 24 rooms (and one secret room) the 20th-century mansion is indeed a masterful castle fit for a king in any age.
Gillette, who was said to be dashingly handsome, tall and slender, is most famous for his ingenious portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the stage. He embodied the character thoroughly, making it his own, introducing audiences to the three iconic elements that became synonymous with the famous detective; his deerstalker cap, his long traveling cloak, and his curved briar pipe. He made a fortune playing Holmes, and used part of that money to build his opulent Connecticut enclave, complete with hand-hewn puzzle locks, secret doors, and hidden mirrors that allowed Gillette to spy on his guests. The project took five years to complete and a bankroll of 1 million dollars.
Gillette, whose last performance was at the Bushnell in Hartford in 1936, the year before his death, was married briefly to Helen Nichol, who died of appendicitis leaving Gillette never to marry again and to spend his days sharing his grand abode with a menagerie of furry friends of the feline persuasion. There were times when upwards of 17 cats roamed the hallways and warmed themselves next to the many fireplaces in the auspicious castle, that was also a place of excitement and renown celebrations. Gillette, a famous party thrower, loved to entertain and held many fashionable sarees at his renown home.
Today the estate, which sits on 184 acres and once had a fully working, three-mile-long, narrow gauge railroad on it that Gillette built and named the Connecticut Nutmeg, is a state park, open to visitors. It is an intricate, immense, mystery and entering into it sets one on an adventure of sights which include the numerous intricately carved, wood puzzle gear locks which were part of Gillette’s quirky imagination and pride a joy. The home once played host to the likes of Albert Einstein and Calvin Coolidge and is a spectacular example of fame, fortune, fun and individual artistic expression.
It is owned and maintained by Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and it is one Connecticut’s most infamous historical landmarks.
The Castle is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Columbus Day Weekend, including Monday, October 14. Tickets are sold until 4 p.m.; $6 for adults, $2 for children ages six through 12 and free for children age five and under. It is a self-guided tour, but staff is available to assist with questions about the Castle’s interior and its history. The grounds are open year-round.
For more information call, 860-526-2336.