Gillette Castle Reigns as a Unique Connecticut Travel Attraction
Gillette Castle, East Haddam.
by Eric Hurwitz. Page updated on 11/07/16
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(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 fortress-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
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 accommodate 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.
For those who appreciate detail and who are not sapheads,
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).
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."
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.
Looking for more sweet Connecticut destinations? You've got to check out Mystic Sweest in Mystic. Owner Rita Lara is a master chocolatier and offers an astonishing variety of chocolates and homemade ice cream at her old-fashioned downtown store.
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