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Where Connecticut kept her ham

gillette castle

Field trip! This here’s Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut. I toured it yesterday. It is, I feel sure, the tackiest private home I have ever seen — which, when you recall that I grew up in Nashville, is impressive.

William Gillette (1853-1937) was an American stage actor. He wasn’t the first Sherlock Holmes but he was far and away the most famous of his day. He must have been tolerable good at it, or the American public tolerable easy-going, because the guide told us he cleared $200,000 in an era without income taxes, which would be something along the lines of a squillion dollars in 2007. I didn’t know stage actors made that kind of scratch. Hence this expensive, lumpen folly of 1919.

This isn’t a stone building. It’s made of iron girders and wooden members with stones stuck all over the outside of it. With cement. Stone doesn’t so much provide a structural element as an unstable crust. The ones on the ceiling of the entryway looked especially eager to break free and smite me.

gillette castle door

It looks less like a castle than the set of a dinner theater production of Bride of Frankenstein. ‘Bout right; Gillette had stage paraphernalia like curtain pulls and moving screens all over the place, and strategic mirrors so he could see people moving around and make dramatic entrances at them. This point was hammered home by a senile old coot in a deerstalker hat and briar pipe, who leapt out periodically and exclaimed, “huzzah! I’m a senile old coot playing William Gillette playing Sherlock Holmes!”

Gillette designed a lot of this himself. Like, his desk chair and the dining room table, which are on rails and slide back and forth, absurdly. And the ‘stained glass’ windows and light fixtures, which are often not made of stained glass at all, but hunks of regular glass painted bright colors and glued to stuff. Every once in a while, a chunk cuts loose and beans somebody. And check out the door locks, at right. He designed them. No two are alike; they’re hewn out of blocks of wood by a master carpenter using an adze. I’m not being rude — they really used an adze. See the adze marks?

He was a huge train buff, too. He had three miles of narrow-gauge railroad tracks snaking around the estate, with tunnels and bridges and stations. Albert Einstein was once a passenger. So was Calvin Coolidge. Ahhhh…picture that with me. The tracks are long gone now, alas.

Now, I enjoy a joke as much as the next mustelid. This place is pretty neat, in a glommy, make-believe way. If it had been built in the spirit of good fun — a sort of architectural costume jewelry — I wouldn’t be so snarky about it. But I have a bad feeling Gillette thought hisself some kind of Einsteinian sooper geeenius renaissance man and this, his stately country home. In his will, he declares how unhappy he will be if he returns from the dead to find his house has been sold to “some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”

As it turned out, he lost that bet. No other blithering saphead could be found who wanted the place, so the government bought it in 1943.




September 3, 2007 — 4:53 pm
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