The Damned Story: Maybe because so many Connecticut residents have heard about it from when they were young and are so used to seeing it, that it hardly occurs to them that having a medieval-style castle looming high over a placid New England river valley is anything out of the ordinary.
But trust us, Gillette Castle is far from your ordinary Connecticut domicile.
Built from local fieldstone over a five-year span (1914-19), the castle is the loving creation of celebrated actor and playwright William Hooker Gillette, best known for being the first man to bring “Sherlock Holmes” to the stage. With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s blessing, he gave the character his iconic deerstalker cap, pipe and catchphrase “Oh this is elementary, my dear fellow,” (which was later bastardized into “Elementary, my dear Watson”). He performed as Holmes over 1,000 times, amassing a tidy little fortune in the process, and like anyone with lots of money, wanted a special home to retire to. And who among us wouldn’t want to live in their own castle?
A Connecticut native and typical pragmatic Yankee, Gillette designed the entire edifice himself, including the 47 doors, each of which has a unique wooden puzzle lock that he also devised. The castle also has all sorts of unique and quirky features, such as a disappearing bar (used extensively during Prohibition) and a set of mirrors that let the voyeuristic Gillette see down into the main room of the castle from his own bedroom (so he could see when guests arrived and could make the proper “grand entrance”).
Gillette was also fond of trains and built a small-scale working railroad — with tunnels and bridges — around his property (known as “The Seventh Sister”), often driving the engine himself for his guests. You know, because if you had the money, why wouldn’t you have a three-mile railroad on your estate?
Gillette was the king of his castle and loved it dearly, making a specific provision in his will that since he had no wife or children that the 128-acre estate did not fall into the hands “of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” After Gillette’s death in 1937, the state of Connecticut inherited the property, and since then have made it a state park. Recently, significant renovations were made to the castle, and general improvements have been made to the grounds, including the addition of a visitor’s center and small cafe.
Our Damned Experience: I’ve been to the castle numerous times — the spectacular view of the Connecticut River is almost worth the trip alone. The work the state has done has enhanced the visiting experience, although the sheer beauty of the property makes it easy to understand why Gillette acquired it almost upon first sight. I’ve hiked a bit of the park, picnicked and even done some letterboxing with the family, as well as have taken a bunch of “artsy” photos (which you see here).
With so much to offer, a visit to Gillette Castle is . . . well, elementary my dear friends.