If interest in the PBS hit Downton Abbey is an indicator, we’re all just a crumpet away from coveting our own castle and footmen. Certainly the Grand Life—American style—is amply on display in the mansions of Newport, R.I., where piped-in hot, cold, and sea water baths relaxed our New World aristocracy.
But a real Euro-style castle in New England?
Thanks to the fortune he made playing Sherlock Holmes in the early 1900s, the wildly successful William Gillette raised a massive 24-room castle atop granite hills overlooking the Connecticut River, in East Haddam, CT. Close friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette not only wrote and starred in the play, Sherlock Holmes—he coined the expression: “Elementary, my dear fellow! Elementary!”
Supposedly modeled after a French chateau in Normandy, every detail of Gillette Castle was designed by Gillette—including 47 doors with hand-carved puzzle locks and an immense salon with 19-foot-high ceilings. The weirdly beautiful 184-acre estate is dominated by the imposing medieval fortress, which cost $1.1 million to build in 1919 and had a mini-train meandering the premises. Today, that three-mile train route is a walking path adorned with stone-arch bridges and tunnels.
Visual drama worthy of Downton Abbey. As Gillette illustrated—and the Crawley family would no doubt agree—a man’s castle is his home.
When: Grounds open year round; castle Memorial Day – Columbus Day, 10-4:30. Where: East Haddam CT. Bonus: Consider taking the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, below Gillette Castle, to tiny Chester village—a hidden Connecticut gem. The first passengers rode this ferry in 1769, and for $3, you can follow in their wake. Or: May-October, take a pretty 30-minute train from Essex, CT, with a short hike to the ferry and up to the castle.