Saturday, June 27, 2009
Winchester Mystery House Part II: The Horror! The Horror!
The Winchester Mystery House is a Bay Area curiosity, but until I wrote my recent post about the plan for an upcoming Winchester Mystery House movie, I had never been inside it. I decided it was time to go exploring.
The first thing you notice about the old house is that, alas, it is trapped in the middle of San Jose's considerable urban sprawl, bounded on one side by a freeway, on the other by a mega-movie-complex, with high rise office buildings on the third side and the Winchester Ranch Mobile Home Park on the fourth. There are just 4.5 acres remaining of the original 162 acre estate owned by Mrs. Winchester. Down a palm-lined lane, through a charming gate, it isn't.
The Victorian gables of the Winchester home are a sharp contrast to the modern buildings just across the boulevard.
It spite of all this, the house is striking even as you come upon it in its unusual setting. Parking, at least on this weekday in June, was easy and entirely free. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, which gives it a bit more gravitas than the average tourist attraction. Sarah Winchester, the heir to much of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, did live here and was the odd home's eccentric designer.
It was an eight-room farmhouse when she bought it in 1884 and began her curious program to placate the spirits of the dead (who had been killed by Winchester weapons) by continuously building on the home for 38 years. When she joined the spirit world herself in 1922, she left a home with 160 rooms, 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 47 fireplaces, and three elevators. If you plan to visit and take the tour--be sure and wear comfortable shoes.
The towers, which brought the home to seven stories, collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, which also briefly trapped Mrs. Winchester in her bedroom. The towers weren't replaced and Mrs. W closed off the 22 damaged rooms and started building on the other side of the house.
The really scary thing about this house, I discovered, as I took a guided tour for $26.00, is its chock-a-block architecture and its wretched decor. Forget the doors to nowhere, the staircases that end at ceilings, and the repeated use of the number thirteen. The design is ghastly!
Mrs. Winchester put bars on the window of the Seance Room. To keep what out, exactly?
Small rooms. Low ceilings. Expensive and terrible wall coverings. Mrs. Winchester's own furniture is long gone, but has been replaced in some rooms by really awful Victorian, machine made, over-carved junk, which is said to resemble what she had here. The house is almost entirely built of redwood; but, she didn't like the way it looked so she had the redwood painted to look like Birdseye maple. The horror! The horror! To think this rich old lady could have afforded the best. It really does make you shudder.
And yet, in the midst of it, there are some remarkable details, and most of these are in the windows. Why she put spider web windows in one of her bathrooms, we may never know. But they really are beautiful.
The spider web windows of the bathroom. One was found in a closet which housed the hot water heater.
When she died, they found several windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany in a storage room on the first floor. Whether she had them installed and removed them during the never-ending construction, or whether she intended to install them and never got around to it, we don't know. But they are stunning, and with the resurgence in interest in Tiffany's work, ought to be in a museum.
This window, with the spider web theme she loved, was designed by Tiffany Studios for Mrs. Winchester at a cost of $10,000. It would bring millions on the market today.
Another window, believed to be of Tiffany's favril glass, found in a storage room in the mansion.
Seeing some of these beautiful details was almost worth the trip. Still, where were the spirits said to haunt the place? Weren't they part of the tour too? All I saw around me as we trudged through the house was the occasional interesting touch, generally obscured by the overweight Americans thundering along behind our diminutive guide.
Then, when I returned home, I did find one curious photo among my pictures. A distortion of the light, I'm sure, and yet ...
My digital camera captured this optical illusion with all those little sparkly dots. At least I think it is an optical illusion.
Sara Winchester interited $30 million, before the creation of income tax, back when $30 million was a real fortune. Perhaps spirits do haunt the place, and if so, they may be crying out against all the costly artistic sins committed within the walls of old Sarah's home. Looking around, it is a little scary. All the wasted millions. All the lost architectural and decorative opportunities. They shall not pass this way again.
The photos for this article were all taken by Robin Chapman, except the historic one (courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House) unless that was taken by me in a previous lifetime.
Re-Read Robin's Part One on the Mystery House
Mystery House Web Site
Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Morse Museum