Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Winchester Mystery House

Ok. For the one or two of you who haven't heard of the Winchester Mystery House, here's the lowdown: Sarah Winchester, heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune (to the tune of $1000 a day) moved to San Jose in 1884. She had lost her husband and her only child already, and it is said that she was convinced by an occultist that she would lose her own life unless she built a house for the restless spirits of those killed by Winchester guns. The house would be continually added to, and construction must never stop. And it never did while Sarah was alive. For 38 years, the house was constantly being remodeled and added to, until Sarah Winchester's death in 1922.

I first heard of the Mystery House on the old Ripley's Believe It Or Not TV show (the one from the 1980's). From that moment I wanted to visit the place. But I was just a child at the time and the opportunity didn't seem likely to ever come. Now, many years later, I've finally gone to the house, taken the full tour (both the regular and behind the scenes tours) and now I have my own impression of the place. So, here are my thoughts on the Mansion:

Really really short response: I want one.

Slightly longer response: There are some definite oddities, but at its core the house is a gorgeous Victorian Mansion with virtually every aspect of Victorian architecture represented somewhere. It's a beautiful house that would be an adventure to live in, if only because finding your way around might be difficult.

And my long response: We got there first thing Monday morning for the first tour of the day. The tour guide was a wonderful ex-schoolteacher who made the rules very clear, and was able to easily explain everything we were seeing in a schoolteacher way. We also had an ex-tour guide on our tour with us, who knew the route and was trying to get pictures of certain aspects of the house. I noticed her taking pictures of hinges and doorhandles along the way, and when I inspected what she was taking pictures of, I realized just how detailed everything in the house was.

This first picture is of one of the oddities in the house. Very early into the tour the guide directed us to a staircase and suggested we look up past the rope. I stuck the camera in and got a shot. This is the famous stairway to nowhere, which goes right up into a ceiling:

It's not quite the most odd of the features in the house, but it is a bit strange to have a perfectly normal stairway turn a corner and suddenly go up into nothing.

Now some folks would have you believe that this is because Sarah wanted to confuse ghosts. I think it was more an artefact of how she was building and designing the home. She was a very intelligent woman, and she would sit down in her "seance room" and draw up plans. Although she took suggestions, she did not take criticism. If an employee thought something was screwed up, the employee had to be willing to do it Sarah's way anyway, while possibly offering that another way might be better. When a section wasn't done to her plans, she had it ripped out completely and redone. She was constantly adding on to the house, which was originally a small farmhouse. And she also was constantly remodelling. It's a wonder that the place was at all coherant. She was designing her house piecemeal, and that's how it looks.

This is not to say that there were no bits of the supernatural in the place. Sarah Winchester was very fond of the number "13", and it appears all over the place in various patterns. There's even a chandelier that had twelve candles in it when she bought it that she modified so it would have a 13th. She also liked spider webs. In one section of the house a whole bunch of unused windows were stored. I took a picture of one of them, that you can see to the side here, that had both a spider web and thirteen incorporated into it.

Another oddity of the house are the "easy riser" stairs. However, their explanation is far more logical than just about anything else. Sarah suffered from arthritis (I think) later in life and couldn't walk up normal sized steps. She had a number of staircases put in that wind around and are VERY small (my shoulders brushed the sides of the walls) with steps that she could handle in her illness. She was a very small woman, and some of the doorways were made to her size, as were the stairs we went up. When I mentioned how tight the staircases were, the tour guide laughed loudly and told me that a group of sumo wrestlers from Japan had made it up the staircase, so she wasn't worried about anyone in our group.

While many people have reported seeing/hearing/smelling ghosts in the house, I felt nothing. Well, that's not quite true. I felt, if anything, a sense of peace and rest. If there were ghosts in the house, they were long gone and appeased by the time I visited. What I felt in the house was a sense of whimsy, and maybe even a little bit of a wicked sense of humor from the woman long dead who built the place. To me, a lot of the more odd bits of the house seemed like a deliberate poke at the beliefs of the time. I suspect that if I were to take one of the Friday the 13th night tours that a feeling of ghosts could be conjured up, but during the day there was nothing, not even down under the house where we went on the behind the scenes tour.

A couple of my digital pictures have "ghost orbs" in them. I've seen websites where people claim that these are photographic proof of ghosts. I've also seen websites that explain them away through a variety of reasonings, all of them intelligent. I tend to not believe that orbs are ghosts... I like to think that I'm sensitive enough to such things that if a ghost were in the room I'd feel it. But if it makes anyone feel cool, two of the photos in this entry have "ghost orbs", one on the stair to nowhere and the other of the coal chute. Going back through the pictures, those appear to be the only two I got.

One reason I might have felt nothing might be from our short visit to Sarah's Seance Room. I put it in quotation marks before, because it didn't look like much of a seance place to me. More of a secret clubhouse. Look at the picture here, taken from the room. The room looked down on the kitchens... so Sarah could go into her private room and watch the servants! I'm sorry, but that just doesn't seem terribly supernatural to me. The room also had a secret exit, through a doorway that looked like a cupboard. Very much like a little clubhouse!

Let's see... a couple of earthquake facts...

The house was originally seven stories tall, but the towers collapsed in earthquakes. It's now four stories.

During the 1906 earthquake, Sarah was trapped in her room because the walls shifted enough to jam the doors. She never stayed in the front of the house after that, and had 30 rooms boarded up.

The house is on a floating foundation, which allows it to weather earthquakes better than many modern buildings. In addition, when she added a section to the house, she usually just had the workers build right over the outside wall (there was a spot in the unfinished ballroom where you could see it, but it wasn't something I thought to get a picture of) so each section isn't firmly connected to the bit next to it, also allowing more movement during an earthquake, and thus less damage.

Another cool spot was the window in the floor. Thanks to going on the behind the scenes tour, we got to see it from above and below.

The house has three elevators, including one Otis elevator. And yes, Otis didn't make residential elevators. The woman was rich, I'm sure she paid an awful lot to get them to install one in her home. None of the elevators are used now, and they sit on whatever floor they were last on.

A lot of people, when they talk about the Mystery House, talk about the door to nowhere. Well, here it is:

And here's a wider shot so you understand why it's considered an oddity:

Another item of note in the house, which I'm afraid I didn't get a picture of, was the original linoleum installed in one hallway. The tour guide pointed it out to us, and told us the guy who sold it to Sarah Winchester swore it would last forever. It still looked pretty good, if slightly ragged around the edges. The guide then pointed to the next hallway over and said, "This linoleum was installed four years ago." It looked the same, in some places considerably worse. The guide mentioned all the feet that have trod the hall since 1922... yeah, that salesman wasn't kidding, was he?

When we went through the house, the tour guide pointed out this window, the most expensive window in the house which was specifically designed to create beautiful patterns when sunlight hit it, poorly placed so that no sunlight would ever get through to it.

This is a strange wall decoration that had some function. For her time, Sarah Winchester was very advanced. She used the most modern building techniques and was constantly updating to the latest technology. She had an impressive call system installed so she always had a servant at the touch of a button. And she paid well. Apparently her workers got twice the going rate of the surrounding area. A good job if you could keep your mouth shut and not criticize the boss.

Here's an image of the coal chute as seen from below (where we all were wearing hardhats):

And above, from the garden:

Here's one of the spider-web windows from the outside. She also liked daisies, and there is a room decorated with daisy designs.

Here's the front door. Legend has it that only three people ever used it. Sarah herself, and the two workmen who put it up. It was installed shortly before the 1906 earthquake (if I understood the tour guides) and after the earthquake she boarded up the entire front of the house, including the front doors.

This last image is from the front garden. The deer is apparently original and was around in Sarah's time, but the bush behind it is an in-joke by the modern gardeners for the benefit of the folks who have been on the tour.

Some more thoughts on the house: It was a working farm, even with all the construction constantly going on. Sarah still grew plums and other fruits and sold them all over. In fact, Winchester prunes were sold in Europe. Again, the farmhands got paid very well, so working for the funny lady was not a hardship. Upon her death, Sarah didn't mention the house at all but left all the furniture to her niece. She also provided nice sums of money for a number of her servants in her will, which they found in her safe along with two locks of hair and newspaper clippings. The locks of hair were from her husband and her daughter, the clippings were about their deaths.

It's a funny thing, but after many years of being silent, there is now construction going on constantly in the Winchester house. All of it is restoration and preservation, but it's happening almost non-stop like it did in Sarah's time. While we were there I saw mostly painters, but there were also workers in the garden repairing items. Perhaps that is why the house felt so happy.