Yesterday after my second day within a week inside a Gothic-style castle, I figured out that in the realm of unobtainable over-sized domiciles I am more of a mansion girl than a castle girl. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, even as a kid I never wanted to be a princess deeming it too restrictive for a girl who’d rather play outside barefoot in the woods trying to make animal friends despite the resulting feet that could only be cleaned with a Brillo pad or making every attempt in the yard to beat the neighborhood boys at their games (touch football sure, whiffle ball absolutely, tree climbing “See you at the top”). Those movies like “Princess Diaries” just reconfirmed that the life of learning about posture, and how to say only the polite things while wearing court-approved dresses was not the stuff of dreams, but of nightmares for me. I once heard an unsubstantiated story that the royal family is not allowed to be seen chewing in public.
Coincidentally I came to my realization on the very day some reality star commoner (Sofia Hellqvist) wed the third in line to the Swedish throne Prince Philip Carl. Her cathedral veil sufficient enough to mostly cover the tattoo at the nape of her neck. Her elegant gown created by someone who was chosen among Swedish designers and best described as demur. Maybe she attached the sleeves with an Allen key to finish an Ikea design. I couldn’t help wondering what that dress would have looked like if she’d married say, a billionaire entrepreneur. But my own biases aside they looked happy enough when they kissed, the groom especially so. The photos shared none of the timid, almost haunted and studied-smile appearance of Princess Diana when she married her prince just days beyond her twentieth birthday. But then again Princess Sofia has a decade of more worldly experience; she appears more confident in herself and her future happiness and if she’s happy I’m happy for her.
But I digress – this story is supposed to be about castles.
HAMMOND CASTLE, 80 Hesperus Ave, Gloucester, MA www.hammondcastle.org
Hammond Castle, constructed between 1926 and 1929, was the home and laboratory of John Hays Hammond, Jr. the man who effectively changed his legacy from inventor of remote radio control used for wartime pursuits to being known as the “Hammond Organ Guy with a Castle”.
It was Hammond’s castle layout and subsequent caretaker’s interior design that sealed the deal on my not wanting to live in a castle. When our party arrived we were not advised to view a video in a tiny room that sat three (we were a party of four) that might have helped with our bearings inside. So we wandered around trying to follow a less than comprehensible map that didn’t distinguish well between floor levels. We’d get trapped in narrow deadends in some rooms not really worth viewing. With a hearty nonagenarian (he walks two miles a day) with some visibility issues we found the castle to be completely inaccessible for the handicapped and too dark for older eyes. We ended up running ahead at each winding staircase, some without handrails to see if the room at the end was actually worth his considerable effort to enjoy it. Many were not. No one made mention of this when we bought our tickets, though it is on their website, but ours was an unplanned visit so we hadn’t seen it.
PHOTOS OF SOME OF THE CREEPY STUFF
Inside the castle were the artifacts – it seems as though Dr. Hammond considered himself an agnostic, yet he was obsessed with religion – its accoutrements and design. He also collected suits of armor, gargoyles and lots of other stuff including the purported/rumored 15th century skull of a crew member on Columbus’ ships. My daughter chuckled when she read that and I started wondering – how does one get the skull of a crew member from Columbus’ ships…..did some family member in the 1500’s realize the skull could be valuable, or was there grave robbing involved? “Where is the provenance” as they say on Antiques Road Show? Or was someone scamming the brilliant Dr. Hammond with his obsessive need to collect? Dr. Hammond ultimately bequeathed the behemoth to the Catholic Church and I wondered: “Did pieces get sold off and replaced with replicas before the beleaguered Catholic Church sold it? Did celebrated organist/castle owner Virgil Fox sell stuff when he couldn’t recoup his expenses through his summer time concert series?? Who owns it now? And for that matter how did they get all those religious pieces?
The placement of so many of the collected items seemed to lack thought and design combining what looked to be the couch left out on the sidewalk when school was let out at an urban college next to an ancient tapestry. Some of the vestiges of wars long gone by looked flimsy enough to be Chinese-made remnants from a high school Halloween party, one of the better parties mind you, but neither ancient nor particularly valuable. I tried to make myself understand that this hodge podge is the authenticity of Hammond Castle, it is not actually a medieval structure and Dr. Hammond’s style sensibility combined modern comforts with antiquities, that what I didn’t like was his sense of style, but that didn’t quell my sense that we were being duped.
And yet there was some brilliance exhibited. The courtyard is weather controlled and not in the normal way. A push of a button can summon rain or fog. The Hammond organ in the great room which someone told me is no longer play-able is an amazing piece with 144 stops and estimated 8,200 pipes according to http://theatreorgans.com/laird/top.pipe.organs.html. A fact in the video states: “Dr. Hammond produced over 400 patents and the ideas for over 800 inventions. Second only to Thomas Alva Edison in number of patents….” Personally I think his choice of locations was pretty brilliant , too, an amazing view of the sea said to overlook the location of the Wreck of the Hesperus, and yet the views were surprisingly limited in the very few of the rooms we were able to visit.
Though I hadn’t been inside since elementary school, I sailed passed the castle on a number of occasions aboard Essex River Cruises http://www.essexcruises.com where tourguides pointed out the giant structure, and alluded to stories of eccentricities (a mausoleum that held the remains of Dr. Hammond and his dead cats in large jars of formaldehyde that was deliberately overgrown with poison ivy, suits of armor and of hauntings that may be the black cat that Dr Hammond said he would be reincarnated as.
The whole visit frustrated me – couldn’t see the views, felt entirely claustrophobic despite the possibility of an expansive ocean view, couldn’t understand what was going on and why they left things like a contemporary electric juicer in the kitchen, sensing a lack of authenticity.
Ego often is the companion of brilliance but this guy had an almost life size nude statue of himself in the courtyard. His wife insisted on the application of a modesty leaf; it was not a large leaf. The guy actually purchased the facade from 15th (?) century store in a French village to decorate his tiny courtyard so why did I feel like the person who saw how the magician did his trick. Everything felt suspect. The audio overlay in the video stated that Dr. Hammond, when he was all alone, would dress in 14th century monk garb and perch in an alcove in the great room to read himself to sleep. So I snorted and wondered perhaps too loudly – “so then who took the photo of that very private moment and shared it in the video?” That’s when my husband suggested perhaps we’d seen enough, and we set out to find the sunshine and the too many irregular stone steps that would return us to our car.
When I left, the castle was still a mystery to me. Even upon returning to my computer, Google search couldn’t answer my questions – who owns it, or much about the privately held company.
If you do go, do as much research as possible before visiting. You will not get any help along the tour route or with the map. And avoid the museum shop except to pay, so much kitsch and so little substance.
I got home and drew a heavy black line in permanent marker across the item on my bucket list that had read “castle-ownership” and highlighted instead the item that said “pick out an open floor plan ocean-front property with floor to ceiling windows and walls as bright as white beach sand at noon” because I want to be inspired by the light rather than the darkness of a gothic castle brimming with discomfort and perhaps a torture device or two.