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Stalking Sherlock Holmes:
A Visit to the Gillette Castle

by Kelly Monaghan

Gillette Castle

On the west bank of the Connecticut River, not far from Hadlyme, seven hills march southward. It was on the southernmost and highest of these hills that the famed American actor, William Gillette (1853 - 1937), placed his idiosyncratic dream home, which he designed himself, down to the smallest detail. He named the hill the "Seventh Sister" and while he never formally named his home, he knew it shouldn't be called a mere "house."

Generations referred to it as a castle, a seemingly appropriate term that has stuck. Today, the home and the 122 wooded acres that surround it are owned by the State of Connecticut and visitors are welcomed to Gillette Castle State Park. A visit to the grounds is free and house tours are just $5, one of the best bargains in the Nutmeg State.

Gillette is little remembered today, but it is likely that you are aware of his influence on popular culture. He is credited with inventing the naturalistic style of acting still in vogue today. Before Gillette, stage acting was characterized by declamatory vocals and exaggerated, stylized gestures. Audiences were amazed that watching a Gillette performance was just like spending time with a real person.

His other great contribution was to the popular conception of the great fictional English detective, Sherlock Holmes. A successful actor and playwright, Gillette approached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for permission to adapt the character to the stage. Doyle, who had tried to do the same but with little success, consented. The result was a smash hit that made Gillette rich. It also condemned him to play Holmes over and over for the rest of his career, including four "farewell" tours. It is estimated he played the role more than 1,300 times over the years.

Much of what we think we know about Holmes, especially the visuals, comes not from Doyle, but from Gillette. The deerstalker hat, the curving Meerschaum pipe, the Inverness cape, were all indelibly linked with Gillette's stage performances. Even the famous Holmes catchphrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson," started with Gillette as "oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow." The cliché took its final form in the film version, in which Holmes was played by Clive Brook.

Truth be told, the exterior of the castle is no great aesthetic triumph, although it would make a terrific set for a suitably spooky movie. The place looks unfinished or perhaps crumbling away. Protruding bits and pieces of stone make it looks as if the façade is suffering from the architectural equivalent of a skin disease and the hanging rocky trim around balconies make it look as though the entire building is melting.

But step inside and the place comes alive with the vibrant and playful imagination of its creator.

Gillette Castle Interior

Gillette was his own architect for his hilltop castle and, like Frank Lloyd Wright, he even designed the furniture, most of it built-in, and the fixtures. The house is filled with clever details and whimsical tricks. There are strategically placed mirrors that allowed Gillette to see his visitors before they saw him and a "hidden" stairway that let him avoid them if he wished. Look, too, for the sliding dining room table and the ingenious set of wooden trays that kept Gillette's tie pins and cufflinks tidy in his bedroom.

Gillette Castle door detailThe entire interior is done in stone and hand-carved wood. All the fixtures, including light switches are wood, and each door (all designed by Gillette) is unique. Where you might expect wood paneling on the walls there is straw matting originally intended for floor covering -- and it looks great.

After touring the castle, it's easy to understand how this actor/playwright was also a prolific designer of new and innovative special effects and lighting equipment for the stage.

At some 24 rooms, Gillette Castle is large and yet it seems compact and intimate. There are just three small guest rooms. Gillette was a confirmed bachelor after the early and untimely death of his wife and in some respects his home, which he had precious little time to visit between tours, has the pared-down feel of a bachelor apartment. Even Gillette's own bedroom is small.

Upstairs, a renovated section of the house displays Gillette's art collection. He apparently had a good eye for contemporary artists who were not going to become household names. Above that is Gillette's private aerie, from which he had sweeping views of the Connecticut River and the surrounding countryside, still remarkably wooded and verdant today. Unfortunately, this top room is closed, for safety reasons I was told.

Gillette Castle catAfter touring the house, spend some time strolling about the grounds. There are some wonderfully detailed arches and walls and an elaborate "Grand Central Station" for Gillette's now vanished miniature railroad. Look for the cat figure above the entrance. At one time, 17 cats roamed the halls of Gillette's castle! A refurbished engine from the line is on display in the visitors center. If you want a longer stroll, pick up a free map of the park's trail system.

The best time to visit is from April to November when the tiny Hadlyme Ferry, on Connecticut State Route 148, is operating. That way you can approach from the west and get a smashing view of the castle as you cross the Connecticut River. There is a $3 per vehicle fee. To reach it, take State Route 9 from either I-91 or I-95 to Route 148 and head east.

Hadlyme Ferry to Gillette Castle

If you're hungry after your visit, there's a refreshment stand near the visitors center, but a far better choice is just a short drive away at the posh On The Rocks restaurant of the Fox Hopyard Golf Club, which welcomes visitors. The food is good, the view of the links is delightful, and the prices are surprisingly moderate. From the castle, take Route 148 east to Route 82 east to Route 434. Turn left onto 434 and the club is the first entrance on your left.

For more information about Gillette Castle, visit the Park's web site.

The best book about Gillette, according to the docents on the house tour, is "Sherlock Holmes and Much More" by Doris E. Cook.

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