This past long weekend my wife and I took a drive to the southern part of Connecticut to visit the Gillette Castle, since 1943 a State Park. With a name like that, you might think it ties to the company producing shaving products, however this is a different Gillette: William Gillette, an actor famous in the first half of the 20th century for his portrayals of the character Sherlock Holmes. If you’re wondering where such expressions as, elementary my dear Watson, along with the props of magnifying glass, deerstalker cap, bent briar pipe, etc., come from, look no further than William Gillette.
Gillette died without a family to whom he could bequeath the estate, and evidently he was concerned over what fate might befall his castle on a hill overlooking the Connecticut river. In his will, he says the following:
“I would consider it more than unfortunate for me – should I find myself doomed, after death, to a continued consciousness of the behavior of mankind on this planet – to discover that the stone walls and towers and fireplaces of my home – founded at every point on the solid rock of Connecticut; – that my railway line with its bridges, trestles, tunnels through solid rock, and stone culverts and underpasses, all built in every particular for permanence (so far as there is such a thing); – that my locomotives and cars, constructed on the safest and most efficient mechanical principles; – that these, and many other things of a like nature, should reveal themselves to me as in the possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.“
In this case, things have worked out well for Gillette, as the Castle is in a well maintained state at present, though the railway on the property of long gone. In the late 1990’s an $11 million dollar renovation of this structure took place, and I gather it had fallen into disrepair before that – a narrow escape.
The topic of what happens to one’s legacy after death, is of increased relevance to me of late, both in relation to my preoccupation with making things to outlast their owners, and, most keenly after viewing the recently-released documentary on the fate of the 20th century’s greatest individual collection of art, the Barnes collection in Philadelphia. The documentary is called the Art of the Steal, and I highly recommend you check it out. Here’s the trailer:
Gillette designed the castle and most of its contents personally, periodically checking every phase of their construction.Here’s an aerial overview I found on the web:
My initial response to the stonework, given the mortar visible everywhere, was not especially one of enchantment or a glowing appreciation of fine craftsmanship, but the structure overall did look intriguing. Here’s another side of the structure:
Flash photography was not permitted inside the building, so I was unable to take decent photos of quite a few interesting bits. Nonetheless, the photos that did come out well should enable the reader to get a good sense of the interior.
Some people appear to believe that if a little of something is good, then a lot of it must be somehow better. While this may be true in certain cases I suppose, like if we are talking about love, it is often not true at all when it comes to architecture or other material things. One case in point would be log homes with log stairs, log furniture, log sinks and toilets, etc. Another is the Gillette Castle, where the delight upon seeing the tooled surfaces on the entry door frame vanishes in short order when viewing the rest of the interior – almost every stick of wood is similarly tooled:
One of the neat aspects of this house are the doors and windows, which have their a variety of unique Hogwart’s-esque latching and opening mechanisms. Here’s a hinged window for example:
Now, as a child I used to read Hardy Boys novels, and I always remembered the tale, second book in the series as I recall, entitled “The Secret Room”. I do like funky latches and catches, secret rooms and mechanisms. I guess Gillette did too, however unlike me he wanted the mechanisms to be entirely obvious. Apparently he liked to spy on his guests too, using mirrors and such contrivances. There are 47 doors in the house and each has a slightly different arrangement of latching and opening. It’s cool, but it’s a bit over the top. I like quirky stuff like this though, even if it isn’t to my taste, at least it isn’t unimaginative cookie-cutter clutter.
Here’s we see one of those doors, along with what I presume to be a cover to the safe, in Gillette’s office:
I hope you enjoyed the tour of the William Gillette Castle with me, and thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way on your travels today.