Heavy Hobbit

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:

Built of local fieldstone supported by a steel framework, it took twenty men a total of five years (1914-1919), to complete the main structure:

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:

From the castle’s location on a bluff, one obtains a fine view of the Connecticut River:

Anyway, tickets in hand, we approached the entry, which right away captured my interest as the entire door frame was of thick timber which had been completely tool-worked:

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:

Here’s the light switch panel by the door:

Another light switch:

The first room one comes into after moving through the entry is the main salon:

A table:

A portcullis-like treatment above a window:

At least they held off on working the ceiling panels with the gouge:

I imagine this building would be a slice of heaven for someone involved involved in, say, role plays of medieval European castle fairs. I have christened this unique style, “Heavy Hobbit”.

Another shot:

I like the use of exposed copper piping for the sprinkler system.

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:

The latch allows for four different fixed positions:

And the catch, here on another window in the house, is obvious in function:

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:

In many of the guest bedrooms, and elsewhere in the house, the walls are covered with woven fibers in various arrangements and patterns:

Some neat details to be seen – here in Gillette’s study/office, one can see that the chair has been put on tracks so that its wheels don’t damage the floor:

One of the unique 47 doors has a carved representation of woven slats:

One more, little closer in:

It looks pretty good, but it sure ain’t subtle!

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.

5 Replies to “Heavy Hobbit”

  1. Wow, wonderfull and inspirating photos.
    I recommendo to every friend of mine your instructive blog and also thanks to explain all your techniques.

    From the north of spain
    anxo mosquera.

  2. Chris

    That just hurts the brain thinking about all the hours all the men with all the gouges spent making a mockery of a hand-tooled surface. I have seen English antiques that in the right light reveal the camber of the smoothing plane's iron, so subtle you can't quite feel it, even though you know its there: that is hand-tooling.


  3. Tom,

    yes, it's funny how when you move from a light touch of something to applying it to nearly everything, the work can move into the realm of caricature.

    In Japanese architecture I delight in finding an adzed post, or floor, or ceiling in a building, but it is always done with restraint, and that is what makes it so special. Just a dab, or a dub in that case, is all that is needed.

    Anxo, glad you are finding the material i share inspiring. It's a treat to hear from people from all over he world as a result of this blog.


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