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Visitors welcome to storm Gillette Castle for Christmas

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published 11/26/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/26/2012 03:04 PM

East Haddam - If one is predisposed to seek out myriad halls and deck them with boughs of holly - or any other spangly holiday accouterments - one could do worse than select Gillette Castle.

The 24-room structure, perched stunningly on a hill over the Connecticut River, was originally the property of actor William Gillette, who charmingly designed his home to best resemble the sort of manor associated with charging peasants brandishing pitchforks and torches.

At this time of year, any assaults by the citizenry are of a decided holiday nature. Indeed, the castle, which is now the centerpiece of a 204-acre state park, is festooned with Christmas finery, a tradition dating back almost three decades. Each principal room of the three-story home has a yule flavor that is at once distinct but tied to an overall motif of simple elegance.

"Decorating the castle is something that goes back to when I was in elementary school in the mid-'80s," said Bill Mattioli, the supervisor who oversees Gillette State Park. "The idea is that it looks nice and festive without being gaudy."

In fact, the lack of pyrotechnic effects, booming-voiced animatronic Santas, sheepish park department volunteers in elf suits, holographic flying angels and/or reindeers, and live carol singing by local boy bands is extremely refreshing.

Yes, the vast main hall of the castle is dominated by a towering Christmas tree that could just as easily have been delivered to the White House. But its understated lights and ornaments, and a small but mighty train circling the wrapped gifts at the foot of the tree, are in stylistic synch with white and red poinsettas, green wreathes, and a riverine flow of intertwined boughs around the perimeter of the room - all watched over by members of the very Wooden Soldier brigade renowned for their "Nutcracker" skirmishes.

Just off the main hall are, respectively, the Wishing Well Room and the dining area, both of which echo the main theme and establish a secondary idea: the Lionel train sets, with their respective snow villages, are a big part of this year's decor.

While the Gillette staff has amassed a supply of holiday accouterments that serve as the basis for each year's decor, the idea is, at the same time, to do something unique each season.

"We like to change it a little bit. It's hard to do a lot because there are so many rooms and it gets expensive," Mattioli said. "We're very lucky that a lot of people donate decorations from their own collections. This year, we noticed a lot of people graciously donated trains, so we incorporated that."

This is particularly appropriate because Gillette was known for his fondness of the railroad and had his own, full-size 3.2-mile track built on the grounds back in the 1920s - complete with functioning steam and electric trains.

"We can't say for sure that he particularly liked the holidays," said Matthew Sanders, a castle guide working his second Gillette holiday stint after years of summer employment. "But he liked people and trains and it's fun to think he'd enjoy the way the castle's decorated this year."

In addition to multiple electric train sets, Gillette's first-floor study features multiple cat ornaments on its tree - in honor of the photo of the actor and his beloved cat, Sir Henry.

Another room, a bit of a nautical shrine to Gillette's houseboat, The Aunt Polly, has wreaths dimpled with seashells. And "The Blue Bedroom" guest quarters was populated with stuffed animals in winter- and snowman outfits, along with a fenceline of large candy canes.

When the visitor reaches the third floor, Gillette's bipartite library and art gallery have been transformed into a sylvan glade of holiday trees - and, yes, the castle's largest train set burbles merrily along the main floor space.

"It's early in the season, but people seem to like it so far," Mattioli said. "I definitely don't have a decorative eye, but we have a lot of full-time and seasonal employees who are good at this stuff. Taste is obviously up to the individual, but our philosophy is that, if more than one of us say something doesn't work, we get rid of it. It seems to work out."

r.koster@theday.com

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If you go

Gillette Castle

Open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Dec.16.

Tickets are $6 for those 13 and older and $2 for children ages 6-12. Admission is free for children 5 and younger.

More information: (860) 526-2336, www.ct.gov/deep/GilletteCastle

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