Tricia Vita

First published in Stagebill, June 2002

Copyright 1997-2011
Tricia Vita
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Sherlock's Home

Gillette's Castle is a storybook Rhenish fortress transported by stage magic to a hilltop above the Connecticut River in Hadlyme. Well, that's almost the truth: this quirky architectural wonder was built in 1919 at a cost of about $1 million, a kingly sum in those days. Its sole architect was the actor-director-
playwright William Gillette, who made his fortune originating the stage role of Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette introduced the deerstalker hat, the Inverness cape and the curved calabash pipe. He also coined the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" in his 1899 play script.

In the public's mind, this courtly Connecticut Yankee with, as Brooks Atkinson put it, "that dry, crisp, faint voice" was the Baker Street detective. So much so that Conan Doyle wrote: "My only complaint is that you make the poor hero of the anemic printed page a very limp object as compared with the glamour of your own personality."

Today, Gillette's estate is a 184-acre state park offering hiking, canoeing, picnicking and a panoramic view of the Connecticut River Valley. This summer, the 24-room castle will be in the spotlight when it reopens after a three-year $11 million renovation.

The job encompassed everything from re-pointing the stone walls and reinforcing the parapets to restoring the interior to its original splendor. By fall Gillette's trove of theatrical memorabilia (including posters, programs and props) will be on display throughout the Castle as well as in a brand-new visitors' center.

"The house was a stage set for Gillette," says David Barkin, the architect in charge of the restoration, as he describes how the actor's bedroom was built along a balcony overlooking the living room, a great hall with a massive stone fireplace and oak beams. "There were several mirrors positioned that would allow him to peer from his bedroom door into the hall to see who might have been there before he actually made his grand entrance."

Favored visitors included Helen Hayes and Charlie Chaplin, who had roles in Gillette's early productions, as well as notable theatrical agents and drama critics.

The official 45-minute tour of the castle reveals many mechanical marvels, all designed by the multitalented Gillette. Each of the 47 intricately hand-carved oak doors is equipped with a different system of wooden latches and bolts that were apt to double-lock behind unsuspecting guests. Chairs and tables are mounted on rollers and tracks. The actor's penchant for stage effects found expression in the creation of secret staircases, twisting passageways, and trapdoors. Behind the desk chair in his first-floor study, a trick door allowed him to slip outside unnoticed.

Gillette's brother-in-law, Hall Cowan, who resided in the castle in the 1930s, told a reporter that he hadn't reached the end of the surprises by the end of his first year. "I don't suppose we ever shall," he added.

"He was a mysterious man," said Helen Hayes in a 1986 television documentary on Gillette. "People knew nothing of his moods. He was almost surreptitious."

In Gillette's day, guests arrived by yacht or motored up the Boston Post Road from New York, following the directions on a hand-drawn map. "If the ferry's not in, just toot your horn," Gillette advised, referring to the scenic five-minute Chester-Hadlyme Ferry ride across the Connecticut River that is still the most delightful way to arrive.

Since "highballs, tea and everything else the place can afford" (as Gillette once scribbled on an invite) are no longer served, you'll want to stop at one of those picturesque country inns along the road. Tarry on the terrace of East Haddam's Gelston House before heading next door to the Goodspeed Opera House for the tap dancing and torch songs of Dames at Sea, which plays through July 6.

Essex's Griswold Inn has been serving hearty New England fare since 1776. On weekends, local folk and visiting yachtsmen pack the house for a banjo sing-along.

In the artist's colony of Old Lyme, you'll find the Bee & Thistle Inn, the perennial winner of "The Most Romantic Restaurant" in Connecticut. They've been known to pack a delectable picnic of duck pâté on brioche and goat cheese torte. Just say Mr. Gillette is expecting you for lunch.

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