Gillette Castle
In his will, William Gillette instructed that upon his death his beloved home not be sold "to some blithering saphead."

While one might argue that the state of Connecticut does, or does not, ordinarily meet the criteria, in this instance it is probably safe to say Gillette would be pleased with the owner and the job it has done in protecting and preserving his medieval digs.

Since buying Gillette Castle for $30,000 in 1943, the state has undertaken several restorations of the 14,000-square-foot dwelling, the largest and most comprehensive of which is just winding down.

The popular East Haddam tourist attraction - drawing 340,000 visitors in 1997 - was closed to the public in September 1998 because of extensive leaking. When it rained, as many as 30 or 40 buckets had to be spread throughout the 24 rooms. Over time, the leakage damaged interior support beams so severely that in some sections the roof almost collapsed.

In October 1999, an $11.5 million exterior and interior restoration project was launched in an effort to return the stone structure to its original condition.

The castle has been open to the public since Memorial Day, and for those revisiting the landmark, the contrast is striking.

Outside, the roof has been replaced, all the stone masonry re-pointed, the windows rehung, re-glazed and repainted.

Inside, everything - from the hand-carved banisters, to the wood floors and ceilings, to the heating system, to the carpeting and the Raffia mat wall coverings - has been refurbished or replaced.

The structure also has been brought up to building-code standards, with new wiring, smoke detectors and a sprinkler system.

Although some interior work remains to be finished, furniture moved back in and additional rooms opened to the public, the quirky essence of Gillette Castle is readily apparent.

Purchasing a ticket at a booth near the parking area, it is impossible to miss the new visitor's center under construction, and expected to be opened by Labor Day.

Although one is free to hike the trails and picnic on the grounds surrounding the 184-acre state park, access to the castle interior is by guided tour only.

Our guide this day was Sarah Smith of East Haddam, a 2002 graduate of the University of Connecticut who was well versed in the life and lore of the castle and its creator.

The 45-minute tour began in the large main hall and slowly wound its way to the third-floor library and art exhibition room.

Although Gillette had no formal training as architect, he conceived, designed and supervised the construction of his dream home, and the finished product represents his vision, ingenuity, eccentricity and flare for the dramatic.

Touring the house, one encounters intricately carved doors, wooden light switches, a genuine Tiffany light, built-in furniture that moves on tracks, ingenious wooden window hardware, and even a secret room in one wall where Gillette could hide if he wanted to avoid someone.

Gillette's sense of humor also can be seen in the bar room, where a closed bar was equipped with a trick locking mechanism. Gillette would often leave guests in the bar room and then watch them trying to open the bar via a series of mirrors he positioned strategically throughout the house.

Gillette was born in Hartford in 1853 to U.S. Sen. Francis Gillette and his wife, Elisabeth Daggett Hooker, a descendent of Thomas Hooker, one of the founders of the Capitol City. He was the youngest of six children.

His parents wanted him to be a professional, but Gillette wanted to become an actor, a pursuit that was said to have been encouraged by one of his neighbors, Mark Twain.