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OK, so ... I had intended this to be pretty much a purely photographic post, something to counterbalance my recently verbose, historically laden Colorado posts, but of course I engage in just a little bit of research and it's hard to hold my tongue. Erik and I took a brief (several day) trip to San Jose, California, a few years back. The motivation was that the Winchester Mystery House was high on Erik's to-see list and so I arranged a trip to see it on a milestone birthday of his. He has a degree in architecture, so architectural oddities are one of his primary interests. And as it happens, I find them fun and interesting also.
The eccentric, rambling mansion was built by widowed Sarah Winchester whose wealth came to her in the late 1800s as the heiress to a large portion of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, made predominantly from the manufacture and sales of the popular Winchester repeating rifle, often touted as "the gun that won the west." At the time I made the plan to visit, what we knew of the house's story was the popular paranormal explanation for the widow Winchester's eccentricities. Admittedly, we found the story appealing. But now we know that it's just a myth built up over the decades that has gained an unfortunate amount of steam. It's perpetuated even by the house's own tours. "The tours and marketing of the Winchester Mystery House still emphasize the supernatural elements of the story. The tale about a talented, philanthropic woman architect falls to the wayside in favor of spooking guests." [Santa Clara University Digital Exhibit.] I guess spooks sell more tickets than smarts.
The SCU digital exhibit far more appropriately suggests letting the labyrinth invite contemplation rather than ghosts, and emphasizes the metaphorical aspects of a labyrinth. For it's an architectural wonder, not a paranormal wonder, and Sarah Winchester was far ahead of her time as a woman competently indulging in architecture and interior design. I have a particular sympathy to this, as even my mother-in-law encountered some resistance as a woman architect in the 1970s, so I can only imagine how Sarah's skills and creativity were disregarded as a woman of the turn of the 20th century.
The debunked yet persistently popular, and perpetuated, notions are that Sarah Winchester kept adding nonsensically onto the house because she was a reclusive nutjob convinced she was being haunted by the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles, that she was heavily involved with seances, and a psychic told her that she would die the instant she stopped building the house.
So the image portrayed is a muttering woman trying to flee both ghosts and her own death through obsessive carpentry. I had recalled from our visit some of what the guides related (you can only view the house via guided tour) of Sarah's skills and motivations beyond the spiritual, but I felt I could use a refresher. So I had a chat with Google and fell down another rabbit hole (like Colorado history). I ended up reading a lot, particularly articles debunking the whole haunted, spiritual aspect. I felt it only responsible to share at least part of this knowledge if I'm going to present photos of the house. I love a good haunted house and mystery as much as the next person, but I also feel bad for Sarah's memory, how it has been rather desecrated with what is essentially nonsense. Her legacy as a very smart, astoundingly creative and philanthropic individual has been maligned by tales of superstition that contradict her actual spirit and brilliance, so I don't want to share this photo-laden post without acknowledging the truth about her and her creation.
Sarah didn't start building from scratch. Shortly after being widowed, she bought a very modest eight-room farm house and continually expanded outward and upward starting in 1886 until her death in 1922, essentially without interruption, at a cost in today's dollars of $71 million. Below is a historical photo from the Mystery House's website labeled "the oldest known photograph of the house" but it does not supply a date for it. I sort of presume the date is after she bought it.
It now covers 24,000 square feet. It also used to be surrounded by lush gardens with hundreds of plants from around the world. Now it sits anachronistically amid the bustling shopping centers of the Silicon Valley. It was registered as a California Historical Landmark in 1974.
In the photo below, note the "doorway to nowhere" above the sidewalk on the right-hand side. You can also see it in the first photo of this post. Much has been made of these doorways and stairways to nowhere, of which there are several. These features and the maze-like layout are purported to have been designed to confuse ghosts of people killed by the Winchester rifle trying to haunt her. But this is rubbish. A lot of these oddities are the result of the 1906 earthquake that damaged much of the house which was subsequently not rebuilt. So doorways that once opened to balconies now open to nothing; staircases that once led to an upper level now end abruptly. Sarah seemed to be more focused on moving forward with her work rather than repairing beyond necessity the past. I think her goal and joy was in the active designing and building itself, not to have a gloriously finished and perfected end-product.
This is a photo of the house pre-1906 earthquake. The tall tower is one of the things toppled by the earthquake that was never rebuilt.
Another reason for the continual construction speaks to her philanthropic spirit. The house wasn't perpetually sprawled because she wanted to rattle around alone in it or because she believed she would die if she ceased building. The truth is, she was able to employ many people who could support their families on the wages she paid, and some employees even raised their families on the grounds while working various aspects of her property. She felt useful as a source of employment. And she could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, indulging her own architectural and artistic interests with local laborers to manifest her visions. The photo below is provided by the Mystery House's website, labeled, "Sarah's workers."
A lot of the information contradicting all the supernatural, superstitious mythology of the house comes from interviews conducted circa 1950 with people who remembered Sarah, from later recollections provided by descendants of workers at the house, and from letters and other documents and photographs in historical archives in San Jose.
So with 24,000 square feet to the mansion, certainly a lot of labor was required over the years! Some stats on the mansion from the Mystery House's website: 2,000 doors; 160 rooms (at one time, before the earthquake, as many as 500); 52 skylights; 47 stairways; 17 chimneys; 13 bathrooms (which seems kind of a small number to me for 160 rooms); 6 kitchens (which seems oddly high, but I imagine speaks to the fact that Sarah wasn't designing toward some finished product for herself to live in, as she certainly wouldn't need six kitchens; or else it was handy if you got hungry in one wing of the house not to have to travel all the way to another wing to fix a bite to eat!)
And a feature that really stands out is the 10,000 windows. In addition to her fondness for windows and light, she liked stained glass. I do not know a stat for how much stained glass there is. But here are some of the windows and glass.
Some stained glass panels.....
Here is a small selection of the 2,000 doors.
I really appreciated the light, open, airy feel of so many of the rooms. With all the ghostly stories of hauntings and seances swirling around the house, I expected maybe something a little more dark and oppressive. But it's actually a very cheery space. I think it would be quite nice to live there. Though if I really wanted to use the whole house I think I'd have to install moving walkways like they have in airports or it would take me all day just to get around.
The bedroom looks a little dark but it's just because of the heavy velvet curtains. If it were my bedroom I'd replace those with something lighter.
And what is a mansion without a grand ballroom? So here it is below. Did Sarah ever host a ball? This I do not know the answer to. But the rumors about her hosting seances are false. No one who actually knew her, nor the workers who lived there, ever saw her have one or ever heard her express interest in such things.
One of the six kitchens. My guess is the bread is a little stale by now.
Storage room with various wooden parts and ornaments.
We really enjoyed our tour through this amazing house and I recommend it to everyone. But if you go, just remember who Sarah Winchester really was — a visionary, artistic woman ahead of her time, not a crazy lady obsessed with the supernatural. Below is a historical photo of Sarah in a carriage ... apparently photos of her are quite rare.
Other things we did on this trip include Big Basin Redwoods State Park. And the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden — a delightful, free space (as in no admission charge) to wander through, with more than 3,500 plantings and 189 varieties of roses, spread over five acres.
We talked to some of the volunteer gardeners, mostly retired persons ... honestly I would find this a pretty sweet retirement hobby. If you're in the area, I recommend you stop to smell the roses in this garden!
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