A Visit to William Gillette’s Castle in Connecticut


 Visiting William Gillette’s home was not part of the plan during our recent trip to Connecticut. We usually hang out on the coast and stayed in Guilford this time, but on the way back to the Hartford airport we took a round-about route via Essex and East Haddam to see some of the more inland towns along the Connecticut River.

We did want to see The Goodspeed Opera House, which is glorious. It’s in East Haddam right on the river. I can’t wait to go back and see a production there. Next to books, I love musical theatre.

The Goodspeed Opera House built in 1876

Side view

Luckily, when we saw signs for Gillette Castle in East Haddam we had the time to spare to investigate. We had both heard of the castle before and even saw pictures of it, but silly us…we didn’t know the house was designed and built by actor and writer William Gillette. We heard the name Gillette and thought “razor blades.”

William Gillette (1853-1937) is best remembered today for bringing Sherlock Holmes to life on stage. It was Gillette who introduced the deerstalker hat, the bent pipe, and that most famous Sherlockian phrase: “Elementary my dear fellow,” which later became “Elementary, my dear Watson” in talking films.

I’m chalking up this unexpected literary field trip as an instance of biblio-synchronicity since it was just a few months ago that I first read and enjoyed some Sherlock Holmes stories. Gillette was a writer in various genres and he published one mystery novel, The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road (1927), which I’ll have to add to my used bookstore hunting list. Check out the Wikipedia page on Gillette for an overview of his life and works and then Wyatt James’s piece on The Astounding Crime. The home is now maintained by the State of Connecticut and you can visit their site here.

The visitors center loops a movie about Gillette and showcases theatre posters and Sherlockian artifacts such as this magnifying glass and deerstalker.

Gillette: another cat loving writer.
Approaching the castle. It’s just a short stroll from the visitors center.
Front entrance.
Back of the castle. The sun room has a little pond in it where Gillette kept frogs. The dining room is just off the sun room.
The patio–I can imagine reading away a hot summer’s day here.
View of the Connecticut River from the back of the castle/patio.
A deck on the side opposite of the patio. Faces the woods. Notice the fire escape ladder.
Back to the side with the patio. The very top room on the left is Gillette’s tower room, which he used for “meditation and seclusion.” It is no longer open to the public. The room to the right on the second level is the library.
Door latch detail. Gillette designed the entire castle, including its 47 hand-crafted wooden doors, of which no two are alike. They still work beautifully and reminded me of something out of The Hobbit or Harry Potter.
Can you see the door here? You’re really not supposed to notice it. It’s in a recessed nook in the front entry staircase. It’s a “secret passage-way” door from Gillette’s study to the front entrance of the castle so he was able to quickly greet guests.
The great room. I couldn’t get a good shot of this room which was stunning when you first walk-in. There are built-in couches on the wall across from the fire place and it is open to the second floor. The four bedrooms of the house look out onto the great room, giving the place a very cozy feel.
The sun room. The pond is in the far corner.
The dining room.
The kitchen. The kitchen has been cut in half to make room for a state regulation staircase at the back of the castle.
This blog post provides everything, even the kitchen sink.
This is a bed/lounge in a room between the dining room, great room, and Gillette’s office. Heating pipes run underneath this bed, no doubt a yummy place to read on a winter’s day. Gillette’s bar is located in this room. From the second floor he could look into a mirror to watch the reflection of his guests as they tried to figure out his intricate lock to the bar. One guest was Albert Einstein and he didn’t figure it out.
Gillette’s office.
Close-up of the door behind Gillette’s desk. It’s the doorway that leads to the entrance of the castle.
Gillette’s desk. Notice the chair is on a track. He liked nautical designs. This picture is a bit dark, but can you make out the bookcases on the right? The state added the removable bar across the middle of each shelf to deter theft, but it looks like an intentional nautical touch. One book that jumped out at me from these shelves is on my 2012 reading list, Edna Ferber’s So Big.
Close up of his desk top.
At the end of the hallway on the second floor. See that do-hicky hanging from the ceiling? Read below.

Amazing, right?

Do-hicky close-up.
Gillette’s bedroom. Cozy and functional.
See the wooden handle? Gillette liked to read in bed and that’s a switch he invented so he wouldn’t have to get out of bed to turn off the light. The walls throughout the castle are decorated with handwoven raffia coverings, which you can see clearly here.

Gillette’s bathroom.
Nautical themed stained glass from Gillette’s houseboat, The Aunt Polly.
On the second floor standing outside of Gillette’s bedroom looking toward the guest bedroom. The light fixture on the ceiling is a Tiffany.

Close-up of the Tiffany light fixture. It’s the only rough-cut lamp that Tiffany designed.
Light switches with a nautical flair.
The plaque next to this display reads: “These pictures were painted by Pamela Colman Smith. Her association with William Gillette was probably in the theater for in her early teens she traveled with Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving, taking bit parts in their plays and helping to design costumes and scenery. She is most famous for the mystical Tarot cards, which she and Arthur Edward Waite developed. They have become the most authoritative deck in existence.” I was excited to see some original paintings by the women who worked on the Waite deck, but do you know what else made me excited? There’s a Bram Stoker connection here! Stoker was Irving’s manager for years. I wonder if Gillette and Stoker ever met?

Gillette’s library.
The view from the library.

Gillette Castle is stunning due to the immaculate craftsmanship and loving yet functional details designed by William Gillette. The castle itself isn’t necessarily huge (as far as castles go) and nothing within is ostentatious. Gillette didn’t refer to it as a castle, it was his retirement home. It’s a functional, comfortable space designed by a man who knew what he liked and had the money to bring his vision to life using quality materials and excellent craftsmen. I was inspired. If you’re anywhere near the area I highly recommend a visit.

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