(EAST HADDAM, CONN.) -- Much like the Griswolds in Chevy
Chase's 1983 classic comedy "Vacation," we drove a great distance five
years ago to find a national landmark closed for repairs.
In "Vacation," the Griswolds went through many cross-country trials and tribulations to find their beloved "Wallyworld" amusement park closed. For us, it was the Gillette Castle, an authentic but then "under renovation"
medieval fortless-looking piece of architecture overlooking the beautiful Connecticut River at Gillette State Park.
I found it amusing and ironic that we ended up eating at the Griswold Inn, a charming old structure in beautiful Essex serving very good food in a tavern-like atmosphere. Still, having the Gillette Castle closed made for a frustrating few hours, as expectations were high in seeing the inside of the castle.
File that one under "Do your homework first before driving any significant distances."
Years later, however, we returned to a fully operational and quite stunning Gillette Castle, with its majestic three story interior (no walk-up attic needed here) -- 24 rooms, 47 doors (each one different), white oak woodwork and carvings, stone stairways, built-in couches, a moveable table on tracks, an inside porch fountain, sweeping views of the Connecticut River, and most importantly for the children, ice cream in the nearby refreshment shop.
Sweepings views of the Connecticut River from Gillette Castle.
Some of the fussbudgets on HGTV might have demanded an interior change of the too-large rooms or re-positioning of the couches (all to accomodate a husband's need for a 52-inch flat screen television in a castle, of course) or to alter the Connecticut River for more curb appeal, but to the normal eye, the Gillette Castle makes for true architectural splendor. It is amazing that there were no Cinderellas, Belles or Princess Fionas ever living in the castle. Rather, William Hooker Gillette (1853-1936), a famous actor, director and playright, best known for his portray of Sherlock Holmes, designed the castle and most of its contents personally, high atop the the most southerly hill in a chain known as the Seven Sisters -- periodically checking every phase of their construction, according to Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) literature. This was to be his semi-retirement home, purchased for $1 million dollars, a hefty sum in the early 1900s, but now fairly commonplace for a three bedroom ranch in Weston, Mass.
Great room at Gillette Castle.
It took 20 men five years to build the castle. Hopefully,
Mr. Gillette let them play with the moveable table as a reward.
The outside is no less spectacular with, as the DEP states, where, "trails often follow, over trestle and through tunnel, the actor's three mile long narrow gauge railroad. Gillette's own walking paths were constructed with near-vertical steps, stone-arch bridges, and wooded trestles spanning up to forty feet. Other outdoor attractions include a vegetable cellar, the railroad station (Grand Central), and Gillette's goldfish pond."
In 1943, the State of Connecticut purchased the property, following up on Gillette's request many years earlier to not allow the property to, according to DEP literature, fall into the hands "of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded."
For those who appreciate detail and who are not sapheads, visiting the Gillette Castle makes for a glorious day whether it be for architectural appreciation, learning about an eccentric and excessive piece of history, enjoying a New England scenic highlight in viewing the Connecticut River from a higher elevation, or spending a day at the castle (there are also ample opportunities for picnicing, hiking and camping on the premises) and nearby Essex -- which, arguably, exemplifies the "small town" feeling perhaps better than any other town in New England. From Deep River near Essex, the castle is approachable by a pleasing three-minute ferry ride across the Connecticut River, or by car from the castle side (the ferry is more fun).
But please, call the Gillette Castle personnel first before possibly becoming another Clark Griswold or Eric Hurwitz.
Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road, East Haddam, CT 06423. Tel. (860) 526-2336. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day Weekends.
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