About This Location
Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut, is a captivating destination for those who revel in exploring the unique and the abandoned. Perched atop the southernmost hill of the Seven Sisters chain, this stone mansion, reminiscent of a medieval castle, was the retirement estate of the renowned actor, director, and playwright William Hooker Gillette. Today, it stands as a fascinating testament to Gillette's creative genius and eccentricity, now preserved as Gillette Castle State Park.
Born in 1853 in Hartford, Connecticut, William Gillette became one of the most successful stage actors at the turn of the 20th century. He is best remembered for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, a role he adapted for the stage with the blessing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Gillette's interpretation of Holmes, complete with the deerstalker cap, Inverness cape, and curved pipe, became iconic, shaping the character's image for generations.
Gillette's personal life was marked by tragedy. His wife, Helen Nichols, died at a young age, and Gillette remained single for the rest of his life, fulfilling a promise made to her. His home, the Seventh Sister Estate, was a reflection of his solitary and artistic nature. The estate, colloquially known as the "Hadlyme stone heap," showcases Gillette's flair for design, with each element of the castle bearing his personal touch.
Construction of the castle began in 1914 and was completed in 1919, with Gillette later modifying the building until 1926. The 14,000-square-foot structure, costing $1.1 million, is an architectural marvel, built of fieldstone and supported by a sturdy frame of steel I-beams. The castle features 24 rooms, each uniquely designed, with 47 hand-carved doors, each boasting its own intricate wooden latch.
The interiors of the castle are equally impressive, with hand-hewn southern white oak woodwork, handcrafted light fixtures, and modern utilities that were advanced for its time. Gillette's attention to detail extended to every corner of the castle, from the hand-carved light switches to the built-in liquor cabinet with a lock system visible from a balcony above.
Gillette's love for trains was evident in the quarter-scale, narrow-gauge railroad he built around the 122-acre property. This personal railway included two engines, several passenger cars, and three miles of track, complete with bridges and a tunnel. Although the trains no longer run, the walking trails at the park follow much of the old railroad bed.
After Gillette's death in 1937, the State of Connecticut purchased the property in 1943, and Gillette Castle State Park was opened to the public in 1944. The park straddles the towns of East Haddam and Lyme and offers visitors the chance to explore the castle museum, hiking trails, and picnic areas. The park underwent a significant restoration in 2002, rejuvenating its structures and grounds.
Visitors to Gillette Castle State Park can immerse themselves in the mystique of William Gillette's world. The castle, filled with peculiarities such as unique door latches, secret locks, and strategically placed mirrors for spying on guests, offers a glimpse into the mind of its creator. The park's Train Trail, following the route of Gillette’s former railway, adds another dimension to the exploration.
The park is open to the public year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset, with castle tours available for a small fee during the summer months. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tour tickets in advance, especially when visiting in groups, to ensure availability.
Gillette Castle State Park is more than just an abandoned mansion; it is a place where history, art, and nature converge. It invites visitors to step into the world of a bygone era, where the eccentricities of one of America's great stage actors are preserved in stone and wood, offering an unparalleled experience for explorers and history enthusiasts alike.