Take one eccentric woman, add an immense fortune, place her at a time (the late 19th century) when occultism was at its peak in America, and at a place Front entrance (California), where tolerance for the rich and strange has always been present, and mix well.
That's the recipe which resulted in the Winchester Mystery house, which we visited last week with our granddaughter Emily.
Sara Winchester was the widow of William Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Her only child had died as an infant and she was widowed at a fairly early age. A lonely and grief-stricken woman, she was an easy mark for a psychic who told her -- or so the story goes -- that she must continually build and create improvements to her home to placate the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle. Since this rifle was one of the major weapons of nineteenth-century warfare, not to mention hunters, explorers and other adventurers, the spirits were numerous indeed! Door to Nowhere
So build she did. She hired carpenters, architects, painters, and the like -- and fired them just as capriciously. Her home grew from its original six rooms to become a conglomeration of 160 rooms at her death in 1922. And as the house grew, so did San Jose, California, where the city has now spread around and encompassed her orchards and gardens.
In the mid-1950s, trusts and inheritances being what they are, the property was given to the state, which designated it a State Historic Landmark, thus preserving a wealth of architectural details which are no longer commonly available -- turrets, gables, bannisters, parquet floors and the like. Today the Winchester Mystery House is a popular and lively tourist attraction. We can't think of another state which has given similar status to such an oddity -- but Low Risers California is a treasure-trove of State monuments to the strange!
We took the house tour first, beginning by climbing a series of steps laid only inches apart -- to aid the arthitic woman to move from floor to floor, we were told. We passed doors large and small, and peered into rooms which seemed to have no purpose, with windows looking onto stairwells and occasionall onto blank walls. Here and there we saw exquisite stained glass which had been manufactured by the Tiffany glass factory. Tile work and wall coverings and patterned metal ceilings were typical Victorian ostentation for the wealthy -- even though few at that time could have afforded ALL of these details.
Her superstitious fascination with the number 13 was emphasized by the tour guide, who pointed out, for example, a coat closet with 13 coat hooks, and complex windows with 13 paines of glass. Although the tour operators do their best to project an air of mystery and ghostliness, the true fascination of the house is simply its complexity -- we walked a mile on the tour and didn't reach all of the rooms. Split Levels
We treated ourselves to a second tour -- a behind-the-scenes view of the operation of an upper-class Victorian home. This was perhaps even more interesting because we saw the machinery for creating and distributing gas throughout the house before electricity became common. We also saw a couple of elevators, and the huge boiler which provided heat. Although these machines were intriguing and complicated, they were not uncommon for their day -- a fact which makes us marvel even more at our great-great-grandparents and their urban lives.
This is a fun excursion for anybody visiting California's Central Coast. And we wholeheartedly recommend the Italian restaurant catty-corner across the street. It's a central piece of a newly gentrified shopping area where it shares its block with a number of upscale stores -- unlike anything Mrs. Winchester would ever have imagined!