An inventor’s legacy at Hammond Castle

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The boy is a genius! So said Thomas Edison after spending a day at his New Jersey laboratory with 12 year-old John Hays Hammond, Jr. The young Hammond would grow up to become the second most prolific patent holder after Edison, with more than 800 inventions ranging from self-launching missiles to kitchen appliances. He was a millionaire at the age of 19 and is known as the “Father of Radio Control.” In the 1920s, Hammond built a castle in Gloucester to house his scientific laboratory and burgeoning Roman, medieval, and Renaissance collections.


The largest residential organ in the world. Photo by Mary McCleary

Like his close friend and mentor Alexander Graham Bell, Hammond was nocturnal, laboring through the night on his designs for remote controlled electronic systems, naval torpedoes, and modified pianos and organs. The eerie atmosphere of the castle reflected Hammond’s eccentric tastes and habits. For instance, the inventor created a self-contained weather system for his indoor courtyard that produced thunder, lightening, torrential rain, fog, moonlight, and sunshine at the flip of a switch. Hammond regaled dinner guests such as Greta Garbo, Cole Porter, and Isabella Stewart Gardner with his avant-garde inventions and ancient artifacts. He also built secret passageways throughout the castle and playfully put visitors in the dungeon whenever they spilled wine at the table. Walt Disney was so taken with the home’s dramatic ambiance that he held an early screening of Fantasia there in 1939.

Hammond loved classical music, and said that he created the entire edifice of the castle to house the massive organ he designed. With over 8,000 pipes cleverly hidden in hollow walls, it is the largest residential organ in the world. The instrument attracted composers and musicians such as George Gershwin and Richard Ellsasser, who performed while guests drank in the medieval atmosphere of the great hall.

For all his theatrics, Hammond produced a steady output of experiments and innovations. The lower level of the house contains a number of his inventions, such as the dynamic accentor (a forerunner of the modern stereo system) and the push button radio.


Hammond’s push button radio. Photo by Mary McCleary

Hammond’s naval correspondence and various documents relating to his patents are also on display, along with photographs of him with Bell. A large family tree features prominently on the wall, tracing the American Hammond line directly to Charlemagne and the English kings, according to records from the College of Arms in London.

In addition to rare instruments like the claviharp, Hammond was a voracious collector of Roman antiquities and religious artifacts. Though he said he was agnostic, he nevertheless liked to dress up in a monastic robes and read books in a Byzantine chair surrounded by his Christian objets d’art.

One of the most attractive features of the castle is the 500-year-old French village façade that Hammond transported piece by piece and reassembled in the interior courtyard.  The design of the space is reminiscent of Gardner’s house and museum in Boston, with its central pool, imported antiquities, and lush landscaping.


A 500-year-old French village façade that Hammond transported piece by piece and reassembled in the interior courtyard. Photo by Mary McCleary

When Hammond died in 1965 at the age of 76, he left his Gloucester castle and its contents to the Catholic Church under the supervision of his longtime friend Cardinal Cushing. The archbishop had been a frequent visitor at the Hammond residence, and the two men shared a common interest in medieval art and manuscripts. In the 1970s, the church transferred the estate to a private foundation, which then established a permanent museum.

Hammond left his vast book collection to his alma mater, Yale University. However, a remnant of the books remains in his castle library, including several sets of encyclopedias that he purchased specifically because they mentioned him. Despite his small vanities and eccentricities, Hammond’s fascination with the world around him, both ancient and new, inspired generations of inventors and collectors alike.

The castle is located at 80 Hesperus Ave., in Gloucester and is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last ticket sold at 3:30 p.m.). It is also open Thursday nights (August 20 and August 27) for candlelit guided tours, 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. by guided tour only.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]

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