12:52 PM EDT, May 12, 2011
With gas prices sky high, we can't forget the gorgeous destinations available to us, right here in Connecticut. Gilette Castle in East Haddam begins it's season this coming weekend and the grounds have never looked so beautiful. "The view of the Connecticut River can't be beat," says Nicole Chalfant, Museum Curator for State Parks. This "royal" retirement home has become an iconic site, nestled on an amazing piece of property overlooking the water.
The home, which illustrates American fairy tale mixed with European flair, was designed by stage actor William Gilette, who brought the role of detective Sherlock Holmes to life. "He added everything we associate with Sherlock today," says Chalfant. "The pipe, the cap, the cape, even the phrase: 'It's elementary, my dear Watson.'" He was traveling up the river on his houseboat when he spied an incredible spot for his dream home. Construction began in 1914 and Gilette ended up with a 14-thousand square foot castle with 24 rooms. "He designed every aspect of it," says Chalfant, noting the elaborate doors, the thick walls, the local field stone accents and even the secret passageway! The actor, who loved cats and frogs, was known to be quirky, whimsical and fun. His home clearly embodies his spirit. "It shows his character, eccentricity and personality," smiles Chalfant.
The grounds were scenes for many other memorable moments in Connecticut history, thanks to a 3-mile narrow gauge railway that Gilette built around his property. "He had tunnels, bridges and sharp turns," laughs Chalfant, adding that Helen Hayes, Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein were all said to be passengers on this unique locomotive. Tourists can get a glimpse of Gilette's actual train in the Visitors Center, adjacent to the castle. "The track beds are now walking trails," says Chalfant, as she strolls through a site known as Grand Central Station.
Gilette lived at this amazing home from 1919-1937. This actor, known for his enthusiastic antics, also had a soft side, staying loyal to his wife who died at a very young age. He never remarried or had any children, so his relatives arranged for the Castle to become a State Park after his death in 1944, in order to preserve it. Now, the property hosts 350,000 visitors each year. "It's our most visited site," says Chalfant.
The Castle is open from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day between the hours of 10am and 4:30pm, 7 days a week. For more information about Gilette Castle State Park, log onto www.ct.gov/dep.