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Be an Angel: The forgotten man at Gillette Castle

Efforts are underway to safeguard the home of Yukitaka Osaki from deterioration, part of an ongoing effort to commemorate the life of William Gillette’s Japanese-born valet, secretary and right-hand man.

“The roof had experienced damage, so we needed to act quickly,” said Lynn Wilkinson, president of The Friends of Gillette Castle State Park, in a release. “To prevent leakage and stabilize the site, speedy work was needed to cover the roof and improve ventilation throughout.”

The property continues to draw park visitors and people who wish to preserve the legacy of Hartford-born theater actor William Gillette, whose property forms the nucleus of the park.

As part of the park property, the house is owned by the state of Connecticut, and state officials granted permission to make the temporary repairs.

Gail Hanson of Haddam said she was dismayed several weeks ago when she noticed two large holes had formed in the roof of the house, adding that she could see sunlight through the roof. Hanson’s grandfather Robert Purvis had lived in the house with his wife Florence for about two decades.

On Sept. 17, Hanson and her husband, John O’Neil, met with Wilkinson, park Supervisor John “Jack” Hine and other volunteers, and work was done to remove debris and vegetation, then secure a large heavy tarpaulin over the roof.

“An inspection of the inside showed the house to be mostly sound and unchanged,” Hanson said.

Educational signage ahead

The protective steps are likely to lead to additional volunteer and grant-funded work on the riverfront area during 2022, Wilkinson said. The project is expected to include the design and installation of educational signage about Yukitaka Osaki, and the clearing away of invasive vegetation in the area.

“Osaki was known for the lush gardens he maintained along the riverfront, and it would be such a lovely tribute to re-establish some of this legacy,” Wilkinson said. The potential to restore the structure of Osaki’s house will also be explored.

“The Friends of Gillette Castle State Park are keen to reach out to others who might be interested in this project,” Wilkinson added.

Interested organizations can write to info@gillettecastlefriends.org.

The Hartford-born Gillette met Osaki, who had come to the United States from his native Japan, about 1900 when the actor purchased a houseboat that would become his home for several years. Gillette engaged Osaki to serve on the boat and, in time, retained him to serve as a valet and stage dresser.

After Gillette constructed his retirement home in 1919 on Seventh Sister Hill overlooking the river, Osaki continued to work on the grounds as a steward and gardener. Gillette had the riverfront home built for Osaki, ultimately bestowing Osaki with lifelong residency.

Gillette died in 1937 at age 83 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery near Farmington. Osaki died in 1942 at age 76 and is buried in Cove Cemetery in Hadlyme.

In 1943, the state of Connecticut purchased Gillette’s estate and eventually opened the property to the public as Gillette Castle State Park.

Osaki’s red- and brown-shingled house still stands at the park’s southern end, behind a parking area near the ferry dock. Nearby stands a reproduction of a tall folly that once formed part of the decorative structure of Osaki’s garden.

To become a Friends member, sign up online or download a mail-in application form at gillettecastlefriends.org/joinsupport. Questions can be directed to info@gillettecastlefriends.org or (860) 222-7850.

Be An Angel is a regular feature in the Times. To submit, email times@theday.com.

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