A Connecticut Castle Built by Sherlock Holmes
William Gillette was a renowned American actor and playwright who portrayed Sherlock Holmes over 1300 times in stage adaptions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Gillette’s long popularity on stage, and added fame from starring in early silent films, brought him a commensurate fortune and a desire for off-stage seclusion.
He looked to idyllic Connecticut for his solitude, and in 1914 he designed and commissioned a strange and mysterious 24-room castle to be constructed on a 184-acre bluff overlooking the Connecticut River.
Gillette personally designed many of its interior furnishings. He called his estate “The Seventh Sister,” because the purlieu was the southernmost of the Seven Sisters Hills that stretch along the Connecticut River Valley. The castle was built to Gillette’s exact specifications and completed in 1919.
There are stunning views of the shimmering waters of the Connecticut River far below.
Gillette was a celebrity in many spheres of influence. Stage, radio, film, books, and he held at least five US patents – one for the first sophisticated sound effects machine. Much of Gillette’s creative genius is displayed in his castle. Visitors will quickly see that he took a different approach to defining country living for the aristocracy of his time.
William Gillette created what is believed to be the first fire sprinkler systems used in a residential building. A huge white metal tank containing water was installed in a room high above the main floor and could be activated by a valve that would spray water through pipes installed in the ceiling.
Another feature of the castle is its unique indoor surveillance system. Designed more for fun than spying, Gillette arranged mirrors in the Great Hall so he could observe the coming and going of people in the house from his bedroom.
From his bedroom position he could also see reflections of guests trying to open his mysterious liquor cabinet. Gillette took great pleasure in watching frustrated visitors, and then magically appearing to solve the enigma of the locked cabinet – just as Sherlock Holmes would have done.
It is reputed that no nails were used in the construction of Gillette’s Castle. Beams are held into place with large iron rods, stone is used as an art form as well as an engineering necessity.
Light switches are made of carved wood, as are door mechanisms and window blocks.
The story of Aunt Polly
The Aunt Polly is as significant in Gillette’s life as was his Seventh Sister estate home.
William Gillette registered his cruiser-houseboat in the name of “Aunt Polly” in 1905. He added 40-feet to her length, making her 144 feet long, and she was almost 19 feet wide. She weighed 200 tons, and had all the comforts of a luxury yacht for the time.
William Gillette was married only once, and his beloved wife Helen died in 1888, just a few years after the nuptials – they had no children.
After Helen’s death, William secluded himself in Thousand Pines, his 500-acre summer estate in Tryon, North Carolina where he resided off-and-on until 1910.
At that time in his life he was suffering from an illness some thought was tuberculosis. A local resident he called “Aunt Polly” nursed Gillette back to health, and as one token of his gratitude he named his cherished cruising houseboat after her.
It was also at Thousand Pines that Gillette showed his skill at wood carving and his admiration for house cats. Henry Zecher, in his book entitled William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes indicates that Gillette had as many as 75 cats living in and around his dwelling on the estate.
The Aunt Polly was moored at the base of the Seventh Sister for the four-year term of the castle’s construction. Gillette enjoyed living aboard the Polly with his favorite cat “Angelina” who shared a nightly dinner at his table.
The Aunt Polly burned at her dock in 1935, but fortunately several furnishings including a piano were saved and moved to the castle where they are currently displayed.
The Seventh Sister Railroad
The estate had its own railroad and Gillette enjoyed commanding the throttle and touring guests along three-miles of narrow gauge track at speeds up to 20-miles per hour. After Gillette’s death in 1937, the engine and railroad cars were sold.
Gillette’s “Grand Central Station” is now a picnic area.
The picnic structure has stone carvings of Gillette’s beloved cats sitting on the roof. Had the railroad been maintained, it would no doubt add greatly to the attraction of the castle, but at the expense of some wonderful hiking trails that replaced the tracks.
The state of Connecticut acquired the Seventh Sister estate in 1943 and converted it to Gillette Castle State Park.
Gillette’s Castle is a top tourist attraction in Connecticut. The park’s substantial Visitor’s Center is an excellent introduction to the castle and grounds – and should not be missed. For more information about Gillette’s Castle State Park look at their website here.
If you go
The park is at 67 River Road in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Note: The famous Goodspeed Opera House is just across the river and less than five miles from the castle.
Need places to stay while visiting Connecticut? Here are a few of our favorites.
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The opinions expressed in our articles are the journalists’ alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any entity.
Copyright © Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos Copyright © Judy Bayliff — old black and white photo courtesy of Gillette Castle