Crazy – Hammond Castle, Gloucester MA

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After leaving the surprisingly good Stage Fort Park in Gloucester, we drove down the coast to Hammond Castle, about which I knew very little except that it was a castle and open to the public. By the time we pulled into its small parking lot, it was almost 3 pm, and I noted a sign that said last entry at 3:30 pm. And be warned all you perpetually-late people, they close and lock that door at 3:29. At least they give you a doorknob to use to get out–but more on that later.

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We acted lively on our way down the trail. My 10 year old son who loves mythology and knights and all things imagination was already in love with the place. Turrets and keeps and all kinds of architectural doodads that I can never keep straight. I can tell you the difference between Corinthian and Ionic columns but unfortunately that is the wrong century and the wrong continent. This castle had buttresses (a never ending source of the giggles for the other 10 year old), great rooms, armored knights and gargoyles.

And a reasonable admission fee. It’s $10 adults and $8 kids and for that you get a really bad mimeographed (can I still use that word? Or is that from the 1950s?) map that is basically useless to self-guide yourself around. I could never tell where we were or where we were going. But first, it was time for the movie explaining the castle.

Now it seemed we were in my elementary classroom, complete with ginormous old TV and a VCR (wait, we didn’t have those in elementary, well, whatever) and a tape that gave our nice young helper some serious problems. The room was tiny, with four chairs for 20 people and no airconditioning. The movie itself  looked like it had also been filmed maaaaany years ago but probably not–it was some public television program about the castle.   Here: you can watch a similar one here and skip the deep dank room.

So cutting to the chase on Mr. John Hays Hammond, the owner of the castle:  he was an inventor and quite a prolific one. Something like 400 US patents, second only to Thomas Edison. Yet no one has ever heard of him. He is, according to the castle and wikipedia (and capitalized everywhere it can be): The Father of Remote Control. He also came up with some submarine and other bomb technologies that were used in World War II–according to the movie, he was crushed by the use of his inventions to cause harm and death. Interesting man, this Hammond: I have yet to decide if I like him or not.

Let’s just lay it on the line : (my son Nico forbids me to say it, but I can write it) the man was crazy. Completely wacky. And perhaps just a tiny bit cruel to those not as smart as he. He “terrorized” Gloucester harbor by zooming unmanned boats around long before it was common. And my favorite, but that comes later in the tour, he wallpapered the guest room so that when the guest closed the door, he or she could not find entrance again because of how well it blended. Nor the bathroom or any switches or anything. He hid the spring locks so that his poor guests were trapped in their flowery space until he took mercy. I think I like Edison better.

Other little joyful nuggets are that he requested to be buried at a specific place on the property and the gravesite covered with poison ivy and mummified cats. Ummm, okay. Also it was rumored that he like to dabble in the occult, had the corpse of his father in the dungeon for years and also owned the skull of one of Christopher Columbus’ crewman (the last one is true though I did not see it). Also he had made a statue of himself naked and placed it in the front yard. Finally, his wife (who clearly had forbearance as her main characteristic) insisted a fig leaf be placed strategically. Guests continued to steal and hide the fig leaf until it was eventually welded on and the statue moved to the indoor courtyard.

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Mr. Hammond with his welded-on fig leaf

Ah, the indoor courtyard was my absolute favorite. Modeled to look like a medieval village, it was beautifully alive with plants and artifacts. Completely outrageously awesome. The pool was 8 1/2 feet deep in all places though an optical illusion made one end look shallow, and (of course!) Mr. Hammond liked to leap from his second floor window into the pool, probably to the great surprise of his guests (not sure if he was wearing clothes, but I’m guessing no). The courtyard had its own “sun system” where the weather could be dictated from sun to moon shine, a slight drizzle to a downpour (I think you can probably imagine that Mr. Hammond liked to occasionally drench the well-dressed visitor). The pool was once a vibrant green–a color stain that he invented, and was also used for lost sailors to signal their location in the water if the ship sank. So I guess I see that Mr. Hammond was generally a force for good, with rather a ham-fisted enjoyment of tormenting others.

The whole place took about three years (1926-1929) to build and has a mix of the Norman, the medieval and the renaissance. The location on the cliffs of Cape Ann is amazing, though I can’t see that you could actually get down to the water there. As I said, the tour itself is self-guided, and some places are off-limits like the master bedroom (stipulated in the will) and the dungeon. Totally okay with the latter. I never did get the hang of that crappy map but really loved the library (which was rounded so that he could listen in to conversations on the other side of the room) and the rabbit warren of rooms in all directions. Narrow staircases. Fun creepiness. I really can’t imagine why people pay for the completely artificial “magic” of Disneyland when they have the real deal in a local castle. No, please don’t explain it to me.

The great room was impressive–if you didn’t know you were in an American castle, you would think you were either on a movie set or in Scotland. Except there was sunlight. I am not as sure about the 8-story organ but then that was never my thing. There is also this little stone alcove, with a cold stone chair in it, where the insomniac Hammond would come and read a book by himself alone every night. Made me a bit sad for him. Crazy smart lonely man.

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The great room. With his lonely stone alcove to the left.

Totally worth a visit.

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