August 17, 2011 — In London, you'll find Sherlock Holmes in a modest two-bedroom flat at 221B Baker Street. In the States, you'll find him in an elaborate castle on a secluded hill in Connecticut. A strange castle that looks like an accretion of coral from far away and like something out of The Flintstones from up close.
It’s called Gillette Castle, and it was the mansion home of stage actor William Gillette, who more than anybody other than Arthur Conan Doyle himself really molded the popular perception of the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Gillette was born in 1853 in Hartford, Connecticut. He was an actor from the start, but it wasn’t until he got permission from Doyle to adapt Holmes to the stage that his fame really took off. He ended up playing Holmes some 1,300 times over the course of his career, including one movie in 1916.
Gillette is credited with creating the deerstalker hat, cloak, and curved pipe look of Holmes by which we identify the detective even today, after numerous adaptations have tried their own hand at redefining the character. In the case of the curved pipe, it’s surmised that this affectation was so that people could better see his face on stage. Gillette even coined the “Elementary” catch phrase.
A career of adapting, producing, and playing Sherlock Holmes all ended up making Gillette very rich and, of course, when you’re rich, you build a castle. That’s always in the contract that the wealthy sign with the devil. In 1914, Gillette chose a spot on one of the hills known as the Seven Sisters right on the Connecticut River. In fact, his own name for the 184-acre estate was the Seventh Sister. Over the course of the next five years, Gillette Castle was built according to a design by Gillette, who apparently liked to reinvent more than just popular literary characters.
Today, the crazy conglomerate castle is run by the state and is part of Gillette Castle State Park at 67 River Rd. in East Haddam. It has a magnificent view of the river, and you can ramble through the edifice during the non-winter months (the park itself is open year-round).
The inside is at stark contrast to the weird outside, and seems quite warm and comfortable. Also somewhat masculine. Gillette’s wife died in 1888, long before even the conception of the castle, and he never remarried. Nevertheless, the inside still has its quirks.
As far as rich eccentricities go, Gillette’s were mild. No bottles of urine or pajama uniforms. Instead, he designed intricate and unique locks for each of the 47 doors in the 24-room mansion, many of which span the entire width and length of the door and each one a work of art in itself. He also had mirrors installed so that he could see most of the interior of the house from his room, used red mortar between the interior stones (“for dramatic effect” one of the staff told me), and covered the walls with fiber mats intended for floor use. He also designed a couple pieces of the furniture so that they slid on wooden tracks and made sure to include a secret set of stairs in his study so that he could avoid visitors when he wished.
Finally, he also owned a small train and installed three miles of track on the outside grounds so that he could ride around like the father from Silver Spoons. Today, you can see one of his engines on display in the visitor center.
The house also contains his art gallery and library, the former of which currently includes drawings of him in various stage roles. There’s also a small exhibit about his Japanese valet, who was the brother of the mayor of Tokyo, the one, according to a placard there, who gave D.C. its cherry trees.
Gillette continued to play Holmes across the world until his death in 1937, so I’m not sure how much time he actually spent in the castle in those 18 years. Moriarty’s not the type of foe to let a man sit back and enjoy a placid life, after all.
Yeah, I’m in a hurry and didn’t know how to end this one.