Categories: Arts, Disaster, East Haddam, Historic Preservation, Popular Culture, William Gillette
Aunt Polly and Its Preservation
Screen actor, director, and playwright William Gillette owned a houseboat he named Aunt Polly, supposedly after a woman who once cared for him when he was ill. The 144-foot steamship, built in the late 1880s in Brooklyn, New York, was Gillette’s second houseboat. The actor intended to live on the Aunt Polly while he built a house in Long Island, but a trip up the Connecticut River in 1911 changed his plans. When he spotted the Seven Sisters—a chain of seven hills on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam—he knew it was there that he wanted to build his home. He later moored the boat at the river’s edge and began what amounted to five years of construction on his uniquely designed 24-room mansion, formally known as the Seventh Sister.
In 1903, years before Gillette built his mansion, he lengthened Aunt Polly by 44 feet to include a larger salon. Gillette entertained on the boat (which had a working fireplace and a piano) and hosted renowned guests, including Albert Einstein. During construction on his Connecticut house, Gillette lived on the boat or at a home he purchased in Long Island. In 1919, with work already finished on the Seventh Sister, he placed the Aunt Polly on a concrete foundation at the edge of the river and turned it into a garden house.
In December of 1932 Aunt Polly caught fire and burned. The boat was a total loss. Rumors swirled that Gillette himself set it on fire in order to claim the insurance money, but in a response in the local newspaper, Gillette decried the rumors, writing that it could not be true “owing to the fact that there was no insurance. I did not think of it in time.”
In 2003, after extensive study, the boat’s remains were nominated by Historical Perspectives Inc. and designated as a Connecticut Archaeological Preserve—one of only two underwater preserves in the state. Today, when the Connecticut River is at its lowest, you can still see over 100 feet of the boat’s exposed hull, making it a much sought after attraction.