The House That Sherlock Holmes Built

The Broadway actor-manager William Gillette was famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. His 1899 production was the first stage play authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The image of the character with his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and curved meerschaum pipe is largely derived from Gillette’s stage persona.

A native of Connecticut, Gillette built a large and eccentric country house in Hadlyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The estate is now operated as a state park.

Gillette Castle re-opened this summer season after being closed for more than a year. I took the opportunity to visit on opening day back in May.

The exterior could pass for a gothic ruin weathered by centuries. The interior is Arts & Crafts. The walls are covered in woven rattan. Secret doors communicated between rooms so Gillette could surprise (or avoid) his guests.

While the house was being built he lived on a boat named Aunt Polly. It was later destroyed in a fire but a few details remain.

Upstairs in the tower is a collection of theatrical memorabilia, including sketches of Gillette in character by Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot.

A miniature railway once traversed the estate. Gillette housed his engines in a shed he called Grand Central Station. Walking trails now follow the route of the rails.

Gillette Castle is currently opened for tours through September 6, 2021.

Nantucket Scrimshaw

If you watched my experiment with a whale oil lamp, you know that I have an interest in nineteenth century whaling. There are two fine museums dedicated to that bygone industry, located in the Massachusetts coastal towns that feature in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick: New Bedford and Nantucket. Having sailed out to Nantucket recently, I visited the museum on the island.

Pictured below are examples of scrimshaw from the collection—in this case whale teeth—laboriously engraved by sailors, as well as the once ubiquitous whalebone corset.

Salt Pond and the Sea

“When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little north of Eastham village and its ‘salt pond,’ Thoreau found what he had come to see,” wrote Henry Beston in his introduction to the 1951 edition of Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau. “There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach.”

What Thoreau first called The Great Beach in Eastham, Massachussetts is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I have been summering on the Cape and walking a great deal, a little ways in Thoreau’s footsteps. Below: Salt Pond and the Atlantic.

Edward Gorey on Cape Cod

In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.

At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.) 

In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.

His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.

The Edward Gorey House is open April through December at 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port Common.

Whale Oil from the 1890s

In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”

This weekend I opened up a 125-year old bottle of whale oil and used the oil to light a lamp. I filmed a short video of the process which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

Around Plymouth

A few more pictures from this summer’s wanderings in Plymouth, Massachusetts, during the quadricentennial of the Mayflower landing:

Above is the view out to Cape Cod Bay from Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the first English settlement circa 1620. It was built in the 1950s by Henry Hornblower II, an archaeologist, Harvard man, and investor with the family firm of Hornblower & Weeks.

Below is a reconstruction of the Jenney Grist Mill in downtown Plymouth. It stands on the site of the original mill that served the early colonists.

Across from the grist mill and up a long walk is Burial Hill, the site of the first English fort, and cemetery. A number of Mayflower passengers are buried here including Governor William Bradford and our family patriarch Richard Warren.

Visible from Burial Hill is the steeple of the First Parish Church, recently taken under the custodianship of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

See also: The Mayflower Quadricentennial and Plymouth Rock, 1920.

Plymouth Rock, 1920

A hundred years ago this year for the tricentennial of the Mayflower landing, a neoclassical portico by the architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White, was erected over Plymouth Rock.

The lead architect on the project was partner William M. Kendall. It was Kendall who had chosen the inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” for the New York City General Post Office building designed by the firm in 1912. The line, taken from a description by Herodotus of the Persian postal couriers, has become the unofficial motto of the US Postal Service.

Kendall was the son of classicist Joshua Kendall, and a Mayflower descendant.

See also: The Mayflower Quadricentennial and Around Plymouth.

The Mayflower Quadricentennial

As 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, we traveled to Cape Cod Bay this summer for a quiet commemoration. My children descend on their mother’s side from the Mayflower passenger Richard Warren, so it was an occasion to pay regards to their sixteen-times great grandfather. Not to mention a welcome respite: sea mist and cool gray skies throughout.

The original Mayflower returned to London with her captain and was probably demolished in Rotherhithe around 1624. But in the 1950s a replica museum ship was moored at Long Wharf near Plymouth Rock where it remains a popular tourist attraction. Mayflower II is seaworthy, having sailed from England where she was built, following her predecessor and namesake. But in the lead-up to the quadricentennial the ship underwent extensive restoration at Mystic seaport in Connecticut. A crew member told me that approximately seventy per cent of the wood is new.

This past week was the homecoming for Mayflower II which returned to Plymouth on Monday.

See also: Plymouth Rock, 1920 and Around Plymouth.