In addition to visiting Beauport, the beautiful Sleeper-McCann house on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, day-trippers from Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel can also visit another historic home of a completely different sort overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Magnolia section of Gloucester where you’ll feel like you’ve journeyed back to the days of fair maidens and chivalrous knights.
I traveled to the very unique Hammond Castle Museum located on Hesperus Avenue on a bright, sunny Saturday to tour the home that was built by John Hays Hammond, Jr. between the years 1926 and 1929. Designed as a medieval-style castle, the structure was to serve as his home with his new bride, the location of his laboratory, and a backdrop for his collection of Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance artifacts.
For those of you who have no earthly clue who John Hays Hammond, Jr. is (and trust me, I was one of them before hearing about Hammond Castle!), he was one of the greatest electrical and mechanical inventors of his time who was known as known as “The Father of Radio Control”, an invention which eventually led to remote control and no doubt makes him the hero of couch potatoes and channel surfers the world over! In total, Hammond, Jr. is credited with more than 800 foreign and domestic patents on more than 400 inventions mostly in the fields of radio control and naval weaponry.
Born in San Francisco on April 13th, 1888, Hammond, Jr. soon after moved to South Africa with his family in 1893 where his father was a mining engineer who earned a reputed one-million dollars a year plus bonuses for his renowned expertise in the gold and diamond fields. While there, Hammond, Sr. became involved in the infamous Jameson Raid which he thought to be a political demonstration against the despotic Boer government. When the demonstration which occurred over the New Year’s weekend of 1895–96 went wrong, Hammond, Sr. was among those arrested along with Colonel Francis William Rhodes. The participants of the raid were put on trial for treason and sentenced to death in April of 1896, a sentence that was later commuted to 15 years’ imprisonment.
Desperately ill from the prison’s unsanitary conditions, it looked like death would be imminent for Hammond, Sr. regardless of the commuted sentence but before that happened, he was released following a visit by author Mark Twain who was on a tour of Africa and helped call attention to the situation. A heavy fine was negotiated for the prisoners’ release by Sir Cecil John Rhodes, Colonel Rhodes younger brother who was the founder of the diamond company De Beers as well as the African state of Rhodesia which is now known as Zimbabwe.
Soon after Hammond, Sr.’s release, the family relocated to England for his convalescence and Hammond, Jr. – or Jack as he was known for most of his life – was enrolled in an English prep school. It was there that he was surrounded by castles and the Medieval history of England which soon became one of his passions, one he never outgrew even after the family moved back to the United States and settled in New Jersey in late December of 1899.
Shortly after relocating back in America, Hammond, Sr. took his son along on a business appointment to meet Thomas Edison at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory where Edison took a liking to the 12-year old and gave him a personally guided tour of the lab and factory complex along with some of the original drawings of his phonograph. After his meeting with Edison, Jack became fascinated with inventing and proved to have an aptitude for it, later attending the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University where he met Alexander Graham Bell who was to become his mentor. During this time he also became familiar with the works of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the first remote control mechanism, and Guglielmo Marconi, known as the “Father of Long Distance Radio Transmission”, which led him to the field which would prove the most personally interesting and profitable for himself as an inventor – radio.
Following a job at the United States Patent Office where he became an authority on the patent process, Hammond, Jr. set up the Hammond Radio Research Corporation on the grounds of the family’s new seaside estate in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an endeavor that was financed by his father. Soon he began experimenting with radio remote control, managing to steer a variety of small unmanned boats around the harbor while scaring vacationers and fishermen alike, before developing radio-guided torpedoes, missiles, and other top-secret weaponry for the US Navy. Hammond, Jr.’s inventions made him financially independent and earned him a seat on the Board of Directors of R.C.A. (the Radio Corporation of America, an electronics company in existence from 1919 to 1986). Stunned to find him to be a good-looking young man, newspapers dubbed him “The Boy Inventor” which was later changed to the more proper title, the “Father of Radio Control”, when Franklin Institute awarded Hammond, Jr. their Elliott Cresson Medal for life achievement in 1959. In his lifetime, Hammond, Jr. ranked number six behind Edison as an inventor with some of his inventions laying the groundwork for television remote controls, programmed car radios, and cell phones.
During the course of inventing and becoming quite wealthy, Hammond, Jr. led a playboy-like existence which included several tours of Europe and connections which read like a Who’s Who of world society, until 1925 when he secretly married Gloucester divorcée Irene Fenton Reynolds, a marriage that his mother did not approve of. Though his father objected to the cost of building a castle, Hammond, Jr. broke ground on his wedding present to Irene in 1926 – a castle located just down the road from his parents’ estate. When the Gothic structure was completed in 1929, Hammond, Jr. christened it Abbadia Mare – Latin for “Abbey-by-the-Sea” – because its interior was designed to resemble a restful Medieval church.
There has been a misperception that Hammond Castle was constructed jigsaw fashion out of bits and pieces of actual castles imported from Europe but that was only the perception that Hammond, Jr. wanted to portray when he commissioned the leading New York architectural firm of Allen & Collens, known for its Gothic Revival design work, to carry out his designs for the castle.
The primary architect for Hammond Castle was Harold Willis of the Boston branch of the firm who was also a great friend of Hammond, Jr. – which was probably a good thing as, not wishing to just let the architects have at it and build his castle-by-the-sea, Hammond, Jr. was involved in every phase of the design which often changed when he would make a discovery abroad that he wished to incorporate into his home.
Because of his constant changes and world-travel finds, the structure does contain some authentic detail work such as doorways and windows from the historic rubble left behind after the First World War while the rest is strictly 1920s construction that was distressed to look much older than it is by such methods as the application of cow manure to the walls which was used to stain and age the new stonework, the submersion of the great iron door in sea water for 48 hours to give it a thick patina of rust, and using a rotary wire brush on the lintels (a decorative architectural element often found over portals, doors, and windows) to take out the soft parts of the wood and make it look centuries old.
Free parking for visitors to Hammond Castle is provided in a lot off of Hesperus Avenue located behind the museum from which you will then walk down a series of somewhat steep rock stairs to reach the castle below. Though they would like it to be otherwise, as the castle is a very old historic structure, the museum is not handicapped accessible which is something to bear in mind when planning a visit.
The current admission as of this writing is $10 for adults and teens, $8 for seniors (65 and older) and $6 for children. Once your ticket is bought, you’re given a map to the castle and grounds, invited to watch a video about John Hays Hammond, Jr., and then are free to explore for as long as you’d like.
It should be mentioned that photography is allowed inside the castle however, neither commercial or wedding photography are permitted on the grounds of Hammond Museum nor in the building itself without paying a fee which can be arranged ahead of time with their Director of Functions. Should you be considering a wedding at the castle – of which there are many – information can be found on their website as to cost and whom to contact.
During the course of our visit to Hammond Castle, I took well over 130 pictures of both the interior and exterior as it was such a fascinating place. Obviously, that’s way too many pictures to share here so I’ll try to limit it to just the highlights (of which there are many!) and should you wish to see the rest. Better yet, go to Hammond Castle and take your own pictures as you walk through its amazing rooms and corridors as the pictures certainly don’t do the museum justice! I’d also like to take the time to mention that even though most of the photos that I have on an online portal can be bought as prints, these cannot as even though I am not a commercial photographer, I wish to make sure that I am adhering with the museum’s policy against commercial photography.
Okay, enough said, let’s take a walk through the house that Hammond built … figuratively speaking of course!
All of the pictures above were taken in what would have been the main entryway where guests of the Hammonds would have crossed the drawbridge outside and made their way to the front door to enter the castle. From there guests would wait in the Reception Mirror Room for Hammond, Jr. before either descending the circular stairway to the Great Hall or being taken to the office of Hammond Research Company which is now the lobby of the museum. One of the neatest features that I quite liked was how the handrail for the circular stairway was carved directly into the stone!
I get the feeling that Hammond, Jr. really liked stone lions as these were just two of the different pairs located throughout different places in the castle. These two lovely specimens guard the entrance to the Great Hall of the Castle which can only be described as “Great!” In this room (if one can call it a room!), visitors will find a very large pipe organ that Hammond, Jr. began developing in the early 1920s and which he continued tinkering and improving upon throughout his life. The soaring 85-foot towers of the castle actually house the pipes for this organ which, unfortunately due to state of disrepair of the inner-workings from the effects of the sea air and lack of upkeep, is now unplayable though I believe that there are hopes of it’s repair someday.
The Great Hall is where Hammond, Jr. displayed a lot of his more interesting pieces including an 18th-century Burmese Manuscript Chest that was given to him by Henry Davis Sleeper (he of Beauport fame!) Designed to be seen by candlelight, Hammond, Jr. used it as his Treasury Chest and the place where he stored his most important items. As I didn’t get a good picture of the chest due to the lighting, I found one on-line to share with you.
One of the most treasured items that was kept in the Burmese Manuscript Box was given to Hammond, Jr. by the Governor of Santo Domingo – the purported skull of one of Christopher Columbus’ crew members. The oval box that the skull is resting in is of the late-14th or 15th century design; both were kept in the Burmese box at night and highly valued by Hammond, Jr. as he considered himself to be a world class explorer much like Columbus and his ilk.
The Great Hall is also where one finds the Rose Window which frames the pipe organ end of the Castle’s Great Hall and provides a bit of color to the darkened interior. The stained glass design depicts angels playing musical instruments though it’s rather hard to tell that when you’re looking up at it. The window is better viewed from an alcove located above the Great Hall but not having my zoom lens with me, I still couldn’t get a detailed shot of the beautiful window that was a favorite of Mrs. Hammond.
Right off of the Great Hall is a Sitting Room with beautiful windows looking out upon the Atlantic Ocean, a cozy fireplace, and beautiful candlelight chandelier.
The Dining Room was one of Hammond, Jr.’s favorite rooms where he could delight his guests with “manmade rain” outside of the windows that opened upon the indoor courtyard which was most definitely the centerpiece of his home and a big favorite of many of his famous guests.
The courtyard was designed to appear like a medieval village which had sprouted up around Roman ruins and is roofed by a glass canopy so that the temperature could be regulated while the design also allowed for Hammond to produce rainstorms and moonlight on demand. This was Greta Garbo’s favorite section of the house when she stayed here several times during the 1930s as the girlfriend of Hammond, Jr.’s close friend Leopold Stokowski. One of the most interesting pieces of the courtyard – aside from the pool! – is the late 15th-century French Flamboyant Gothic-style door pictured below. Extracted from the ruins of a French chateau, the limestone doorway was shipped to Gloucester in 45 separate pieces and then reconstructed in the courtyard by Gloucester workmen.
Also located in the courtyard is an 11th-century Romanesque doorway pictured below which is said to be from Ravello, Italy. Leading into the Great Hall from the courtyard, this doorway is carved from porous, volcanic rock and includes a carved statue of Saint Mark dating from the late-14th to early-15th century along with stone gargoyles guarding the passageway. After all, what’s a castle without a gargoyle or two?
Even though they lived in a castle, as the Hammonds did a lot of entertaining, they needed the conveniences of a modern kitchen – or two! – which can be found on the level below the Dining Room. I’m pretty sure the household had every appliance available at the time and if not, Hammond, Jr. could always invent what was needed!
From the kitchen, visitors will hopefully soon find their way to Hammond, Jr.s Library and “War Room” as he called it. Truthfully, though, it’s a good thing that they give you a map as it’s quite easy to get turned around in the castle!
Keep going and head up to the second level where you’ll not only find the alcove overlooking the Great Hall, but you’ll eventually make your way to the Medieval Bedroom which was shared by the Hammonds and overlooks the beautiful courtyard below.
Down a short passageway, you next arrive at the Early American Bedroom which was designed by Mrs. Hammond and utilizes some of her furniture as well as quilts that she herself made like the one on the bed. From this room, guests had a wonderful view of the courtyard below.
Up a steep and winding stone staircase encased in one of the castle’s towers, you’ll arrive on the third floor of the castle where the servants, quarters were located. These, too, were designed in the Early American style like the guest room on the floor below. I have to admit that I was rather enamored of the elephant sculpture on the dresser!
Heading back down the stairs (carefully!) and through the beautiful courtyard once again …
… you’ll eventually come to Dr. Hammond’s Sitting Room and Invention Room where you’ll see a print of his family’s genealogy and some of his inventions along with pictures and other memorabilia from his life and work.
If you’re wondering – like I was – if Hammond, Jr. had planned all along to eventually turn his Medieval-style home into a museum showcase for all of his collectibles the answer is yes, he was. The legal preparations to turn his castle into a non-profit museum to show off his medieval art collection and to achieve a tax-exempt status began in 1930. Like his friend, Isabella Stewart Gardner, had done with her home in Boston when she turned Fenway Court into a museum for her immense private collection of art, Hammond, Jr. was able to arrange it so that the only section of his vast ocean-front property on which he ever paid taxes was the laboratory wing.
After you’ve toured the inside of Hammond Castle Museum, be sure to take the time to walk around outside on the beautiful grounds and take a look at the details that were not forgotten in the building of the Hammonds’ Abbadia Mare where John Hays Hammond, Jr. reposes to this day in the garden overlooking the main entryway and the iron door at the end of the drawbridge which opened into a world of long-ago history brought to the shores of Massachusetts.
From the bell tower to the portico to the ornamental details, not a single spot was missed in Jack Hammond’s gift to his wife and to this day it remains a gift to any traveler who wishes to make the trip to the North Shore and visit this most interesting piece of history. It’s really unlike any other place in New England and well worth the drive from anywhere!
John Hays Hammond, Jr., died on February 12, 1965, while in New York City attending a Board Meeting of R.C.A. and per his wishes was buried on the grounds of his estate. With his wife Irene having pre-deceased him in 1959 and having neither children of his own nor nieces or nephews, he willed his castle to Cardinal Cushing and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The Catholic Church continued to run it as a museum until Cardinal Cushing’s death then, unable and uwilling to maintain the property, they sold it to a non-profit corporation which runs it to this day.
In a letter to his father in 1924, John Jays Hammond, Jr. wrote:
“My ambition is to leave a modest, but beautiful, museum. … I want only an authentic atmosphere, some furniture, and genuine architectural pieces — doors, windows, etc. In cold restrained New England, a place with the romantic beauty of the Italian and French past may prove the inspiration of many poor artists and students to come. It will give them something that I have been fortunate enough to know and enjoy. It also gives me satisfaction to think that I may be able to produce something of lasting worth.”
Did he succeed? Take a visit to the castle and judge for yourself!
Hammond Castle Museum is closed during the winter months and their current hours of operation are varied depending upon the season so be sure to check their website or call 978-283-2080 to get the latest information. Allow yourself several hours when visiting so that you’ll be able to see all that Hammond Castle has to offer.
How to Reach Hammond Castle Museum Gloucester (MA)
Follow below Map to reach Reach Hammond Castle Museum, Gloucester (MA)