A full-blown medieval castle complete with rare, authentic old-world artefacts perched on the New England shores? If you are looking for one of the more unusual day trips from Boston, Massachusetts, make the half hour drive to Gloucester to discover Hammond Castle, a hidden gem that will have you thinking more about King Arthur and medieval knights than lobster rolls and clam digging. This castle is chock-full of one surprise after another, something I discovered when I explored all of its Gothic nooks and crannies on a recent visit.
The Man Behind the Castle: John Hays Hammond Jr.
Hammond Castle was built in 1929 by John (Jack) Hays Hammond Jr., an American engineer, entrepreneur and inventor who was inspired at a young age to pursue a career in technology after accompanying his father on a business trip where he met Thomas Edison.
This early introduction to the world of science and engineering led Hammond to pursue a degree in telephony and radio dynamics at Yale and laid the groundwork for many of his future inventions. It also brought him into contact with Alexander Graham Bell, who would become a close advisor to Jack throughout his life.
Hammond became one of America’s most prolific inventors, holding an impressive list of patents on more than 430 inventions of his own, many in the field of radio controls and naval weaponry. In fact, some of his work served as the basis for modern missile guidance systems. And with this success came the financial means for Hammond to bring his eccentric ‘modern medieval’ castle to life.
Hammond’s Love of Castles is Realized in Gloucester, Massachusetts
John Hammond had fallen in love with castles as a boy when he had lived in England and attended boarding school in Kent. When he moved back to the United States he brought that love of castles with him and in 1926 he hired a prominent architectural firm (Allen & Collins) to construct a castle of his own in Gloucester, Massachusetts..
Completed in 1929, Hammond Castle became the home for a vast assortment of historic artefacts that Hammond had collected over the years, some of which were massive architectural structures that Jack bought in Europe and had shipped to the States. In some cases, the castle was literally built around these structures, giving the building an authentic look and feel that you would would not expect to see outside of Europe.
Almost immediately after completing its construction, Hammond opened up several of the rooms to the public as a museum where they could view these historic items for themselves, while Jack and his wife Irene lived in the private suite of rooms. Today, the entire castle is a museum, and visitors can explore rooms throughout the castle, including the formerly private areas.
TIP: Hammond Castle is typically closed during the winter, but this year the Castle was opened for the first time in 20 years for several weeks in December to host craft fairs, concerts and other special holiday events. Hopefully this will continue in the future; otherwise the Castle is open June – September.
A Romantic Setting on the Shores of the Atlantic
I arrived at Hammond Castle on a beautiful December afternoon with blue skies above and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, and my first impression was a great one: an incredible view of the Atlantic ocean through the arches of a flagstone patio adjacent to the visitors’ entrance. I could see why Hammond had chosen this cliff-side bluff to build his dream home and I began to suspect that even though he was a man of science, John Hammond was a romantic at heart, as well.
After entering the castle and purchasing my ticket in the gift shop, I began my self-guided tour with the help of a brochure that pointed out the highlights of each room on the tour.
Even though I’m not the most patient person when it comes to reading printed guides, I soon learned that there were so many fascinating details in each room that I didn’t want to miss any of them. Instead, I explored every room that was open to the public, poring over the information in my guide and marvelling at the interesting and sometimes quirky details in every room. I was continually surprised by the grandeur, detail and in some cases, imagination, that had gone into the construction of this castle and its interior spaces.
What’s a Castle Without A Drawbridge
No castle is complete without a drawbridge, even a decorative one, and Hammond designed his castle so that the main entrance was a set of Gothic wooden doors at the end of a short drawbridge. (Today, visitors use a much less grandiose entrance off to the side, but still pass by these impressive doors on their way to the Lower Hall.)
The Lower Hall
To reach the lower level of the castle, visitors descend a stone spiral staircase, which Hammond designed so that the steps are worn down in the centre: this ‘cupping’ was one example of the kind of detail that Hammond insisted upon and gives the impression the castle is a much older structure. What is very old, however, is the 2nd century headstone of a cavalry officer who served in the army of Emperor Trajan, that is mounted on the wall in the Lower Hall at the foot of the stairway. In fact, this is the oldest artefact in Hammond castle.
Step Into the Cathedral-Like Great Hall
Without a doubt, the grandest room in Hammond Castle is the Great Hall, a huge space that feels like a Gothic cathedral – or maybe King Arthur’s feasting hall, what with the huge heraldic banners hung from above. The Great Hall’s dimensions are a definite wow-factor: almost 70 feet long and 22 feet wide with soaring 60-foot vaulted ceilings. But the details in the room are just as impressive: a massive 15th century stone fireplace from a bombed-out castle in France on one wall, a towering bishops chair at one end of the Hall and a 13th century Italian arched doorway at the opposite end.
If all of this isn’t enough to impress, Hammond also built and installed a pipe organ here with more than 8000 pipes, thought to be the largest organ of its kind in a private residence in this hemisphere. And yes, Jack could play it – he even turned its console into a player organ (with his own patent of course).
Today the Great Hall is often used to host private functions and is popular for weddings; there was even a Medieval-themed one here where the bride and groom and their guests came in period costume.
A Skull from Christopher Columbus’ Crew, too
Everywhere in the castle you’ll find unusual artefacts that John Hammond collected, some of which are not mentioned in the brochure, but are described on informative notes mounted near them in each room. The most unusual artefact I discovered was in a glass case tucked into an alcove on one side of the Great Hall. On a shelf inside the case was a specially-designed metal box holding the skull of one of Christopher Columbus’ crew! Hammond was gifted the skull when he sailed his yacht ‘Ripple’ to Hispaniola in a mini-recreation of part of Columbus’ voyage.
The Courtyard: A Delightful Surprise
Through the arched doorways at the end of the Great Hall was one of the most unexpected delights in Hammond Castle: its skylit Courtyard, a bright, open space filled with lush plants that was designed to represent a 15th century French village square centred around a fountain.
Hammond recreated his ‘village’ with actual historic facades of storefronts that he found and purchased in France. On the left is the wooden doorway of a bakery that he sourced in Tours, and in the far right corner is a butcher shop and tavern from Amiens.
The ‘fountain’ at the centre is actually over 8 feet deep and was used as a swimming pool by Hammond, but he apparently tinted the water an opaque green to make it appear more shallow.
No Detail Overlooked in the Renaissance Dining Room
Apparently John Hammond’s wife, Irene, wasn’t a huge fan of the Gothic style in much of the castle, so she designed the dining room in a Renaissance style instead. The narrow table with its chairs on one side is typical of this period, as were the floor tiles which were copied from Spanish originals. The decorative wooden ceiling was given to the Hammonds by William Hearst, (someone who was a kindred spirit when it came to building elaborate residences, having built his own ‘castle’ in California.)
Guests Got the ‘Gothic Experience’
There are two guest rooms on the tour of Hammond Castle, one done up in Gothic style, and one with Early American decor. The Gothic guest room is true to its inspiration, with a 14th century Italian bed and floor tiles sourced from the palace that was once owned by Columbus’ second son, Diego.
Apparently, this wasn’t the most popular room for overnight guests because the Gothic bed was outfitted with a hay mattress that wasn’t particularly comfortable. (John Hammond was a little eccentric and believed that everyone should sleep on a hay mattress at least once in their life.)
Hammond Castle: A Medieval Castle Fit for a Renaissance Man
It would take someone who was a little eccentric to build a medieval castle in the middle of New England, and John Hammond Jr. was definitely that. Hammond took a boyhood fascination with European castles to the nth degree – not just by building Hammond Castle, but by building it with such attention to detail that it looks like it could have been transplanted here stone by stone from Europe.
No doubt it was this same imagination, creativity and meticulous execution that led to John Hammond Jr.’s success as an inventor. Like other Renaissance men before him, art and science were not mutually exclusive, something that is evident in the artwork and artefacts that Hammond collected and the home he built to house them.
While I am sure that John Hammond Jr.’s technological advancements in guidance systems and remote controls may be viewed by many as his greatest legacy, I was absolutely enamoured with his castle fantasy come to life.
I guess I’m more of a romantic at heart, too.
TIP: Admission to Hammond Castle Museum costs $15 (discounts for seniors and kids). During the regular season (June to September) there are daily guided tours every 90 minutes as well as the self-guided tour. For more details, visit their website.