We did little-to-no research on this excursion and that become obvious when the GPS proceeded to tell us to “board a boat in 1000 feet”. A little confused in the moment I had to quickly pull out my phone and double check to make sure we were on the correct road to the intended location being the Gillette Castle State Park. We scrambled some cash from the nooks and crannies of the car and were able to pay the 4$(5$ on weekends) fee to board the ferry and our car was small enough to fit in one of the only 9 spots available for parking on the boat.
Later we learned that what we boarded was The Chester Hedlyme Ferry. One of the oldest continues running ferries in Connecticut that provides a quick and scenic 3 minute ride to the Gillette Castle visible from the boat in the distance, as well as gorgeous views of the Connecticut River. Although not the quickest way to get to the castle the ferry gives visitors the great opportunity of avoiding I-95 which in our books is enough reason to take the road less traveled. Or the boat in this particular case.
Once off the boat we took the short windy road pass tall trees and gorgeous scenery and soon arrived at the entrance of The Gillette Castle State Park. The Park consist of the Fairy tale like castle and it’s lush grounds.
We climbed up the near-vertical steps surrounded by stone walls and gorgeous flower beds and passed the “Gillette Central Station”. The Castle was quite popular back in the days for it’s 3 mile long narrow gauge railroad which passed by the estate and the 100 feet high cliffs of the Connecticut Rivers sometime exceeding to great speed and visitors such as Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and Helen Hayes were known to get quite a thrill from this famous for it’s time ride. Today the remaining tracks are converted into walking trails and the engines once running at full speed are at display at the modern Visitor Center at the Castle.
Gillette Castle is a truly amazing place and was originally built not as a castle, but as a home for William Hooker Gillette, an actor who was most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The eccentric actor commissioned and designed it himself and wanted it to resemble a Medieval Gothic house, but turned out to be as some say an “American fairy tale mixed with European flair” and others find it to be “a weird blending of Victorian and Arts and Crafts”. Some people in the past were known to described it as “Gillette’s Folly”.
Gillette designed every part of this strange house overlooking every step in the process and you have to really see it to believe it. The outside of the castle is built in grey stone supported by a steel framework. The project costed the actor a whooping 1 million dollars at the time and took five years and 20 workers working full time to complete. He was initially planning to build his retirement home on Long Island but one day while passing through the Connecticut River in his houseboat, “Aunt Polly” he discovered the cliffs of the “Seven Sisters”. The site was so gorgeous and took his breath away so he quickly changed plans and started outlining the building of what he called (before the state of Connecticut renamed it), “The Seventh Sister Castle”, which was the name of the hills on which the house is build.
But what is really impressive is the inside of this unusual house. There are 24 rooms in total not all of them open to the public spread on 14,000 sq ft. You enter the property through the huge living room completed with large fireplace. There is a guide who begins the self-guided tour with a history of the castle and an overview of the man himself. There are many doors visitors pass through on their exploration tour of the house. In couple of the rooms you’ll see a note posted describing that whats masking behind the wall and doors are hidden passages which Gillette would use for his dramatic appearance while entertaining guests. Each door is equipped with an external Steampunk-like latch intricately carved of wood. The walls are constructed similarly to a stage set and he would sometime get in a theatrical role for the entertainment of his patrons.
Some of the other things you’ll find in the house are unusual furnishings, built-in couches and a movable table on tracks, a hand-carved bar which opens with a secret latch, a number of Tiffany lamps made of broken bottle fragments, a heated bed and a grand upper-floor balcony running the length of the downstairs main room. Reportedly this architectural feature is theorized to have been used to enhance Gillette’s stature making him appear taller to guests looking up at him from below and maybe that also explains why the walls on the second floor are notably short.
Inside the house you would also find a wishing well complete with a fountain where visitors can still throw a penny and they themselves can make a wish . The sun room resembles a green house with some exotic plants and wall to wall windows. Coins from all over the world are found in the well. It is estimated that the castle sees about 350,000 visitors per year.
No two doors are alike, no two windows are alike. Woodwork within the home is hand-hewn southern white oak. All hand crafted. Secret passages, stained glass windows, narrow hallways and beautiful views from everywhere in the castle of the Connecticut River. The interior and the inventions Gillette introduced to the house are fascinating. You’ll find yourself questioning things, wandering about things, being in awe of things, but mostly amazed by the craftsmen in this house. Many of the rooms remain the way Mr. Gillette left them before he left the house where he lived between the years of . The actor didn’t have kids himself so in his will he precluded the possession of his home by any “blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded”.
The grounds of the House absolutely complete this beautiful site. They are open to the public from 8am to sunset and comprise of fish pond, wooded areas, walking trails, stone-arch bridges, root cellar, lakes, wooden bridges, wooded trestles spanning up to 40 ft and a a two story gable ended vernacular dwelling for servants.
As we always do we packed a picnic and sat on the bench by the fishing pond for a delicious meal with a view like no other while our little explorer wandered around the meadow. The weather was gorgeous that day and births were singing. The Castle is not overly crowded so we found ourselves having the grounds to just us to enjoy, breathing the crisp New England air and conversing about all the wonders of this House.
Here is where you can find Gillette Castle: