From the outside, it appears to be a medieval castle in ruin. On the inside, it is rustic and cozy, with all of the modern conveniences and comforts of home.
William Gillette was born in 1853 in Hartford, CT. His father, Francis, was a Yale-educated lawyer, farmer and prominent politician who served a term in the U.S. Senate. His mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut. Will grew up in the Nook Farm neighborhood of Hartford with the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Will left home to pursue an acting career and went on to become one of the most successful and significant stage actors in American theater at the turn of the century.
William Gillette’s most recognized role is that of Sherlock Holmes. With the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette wrote the first authorized play adaptations of the novels. Beginning in 1899, Gillette went on to star as Sherlock Holmes over 1,300 over the course of 33 years. Gillette originated and popularized many common features of the character: the deerstalker cap, inverness cape, curved pipe, magnifying glass and phrase, “elementary my dear fellow” (later evolved into “elementary my dear Watson”, one of the most recognized lines in popular culture).
William Gillette married Helen Nichols, an actress from Detroit, in 1882. In 1888, she died from a ruptured appendix, at the age of 28. Will promised her that he’d never remarry. He outlived Helen by 49 years, staying single and childless for the rest of his life.
The castle was meant as a retirement home. As William Gillette insisted that it was not a castle, the official name of the property was the 7thSister Estate. Informally, it was the ‘Hadlyme Stone Heap’ or simply, ‘the pile of rocks’. Design of the castle and all of the quirks and eccentricities therein was done by William Gillette. The Porteus Walker Company of Hartford was hired as the general contractor.
Construction was started in 1914 and completed in 1919, with Gillette later modifying building, including the expansion from 1923-1926. As a finished product, the 14,000 square foot building contained 24 rooms and cost a total of 1.1 million dollars to complete. Work on the home was primarily done by a team of 20 men. The house is built of fieldstone collected from the property and surrounding area. A team of 5 master carpenters created all of the woodwork for the castle, carving southern white oak by hand. The entire structure is well supported by a frame of steel I-beams. For the time, the house had all of the modern utilities. Electricity was provided by generator before the rest of the town had access. Hand carved wooden light switches were meant to resemble levers backstage or operating switches for a railroad. Light fixtures ranged from Gillette’s handmade craft lights to Quezal globes to two made by Tiffany and Company. The house had several bathrooms each with modern toilet, sink and bathtubs, hot and cold water. Central heating originated from a coal fired boiler in the basement and provided steam to fill the cast iron radiators spread around the home. Of the doors, there are 47 hand carved, with varying latches and mechanisms, no two being exactly the same. Pieces of furniture such as the dining room table and office chair were set on tracks to avoid damaging the floors. A built in liquor cabinet could be locked by Gillette who could then view it from the 2ndfloor balcony through one of a three strategically placed mirrors. Also in the home are a 1,500 square foot living room, a greenhouse, several guest bedrooms, an art gallery, library and 2 tower rooms.
William Gillette had a love of trains since childhood and always wanted to drive one. In 1927, Gillette built a quarter scale narrow gauge railroad around his 122 acre property. The railroad included 2 engines (one steam, one electric), several passenger cars and 3 miles of track complete with bridges, turnarounds and a tunnel.
William Gillette died in 1937 at the age of 83 and ¾. The estate was left to his cousin and brother-in-law. They tried to sell the castle at auction in 1938. The winning bid was $38,000 from a real estate broker, however, they rejected it. The reason is that Gillette said in his will that he did not want the property “in the possession of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded”. In 1943, the State of Connecticut, with help from the Connecticut Forrest and Parks Association, purchased the property from Gillette’s family at a cost of $30,000. Gillette Castle State Park first opened to the public on October 7th, 1944 as a museum and state park.