Friday, July 20, 2007

The Mystery House

Every couple of years, DS#2's birthday falls on Friday the 13th. In fact, he was born on Friday the 13th. So I try to do something kind of special for him when that happens.

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose has special flashlight tours on Friday the 13th, so that's where we headed. Okay, and there were a couple of Girl Scouts along for the ride as well. We had a great tour guide who told us that one of the things guides get to do is ignore the velvet ropes and explore the house on their own.

Sarah Winchester was married to William Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. William and their daughter died within a short period of time and Sarah consulted a seer in an attempt to contact them. The seer told her she had to build a house to hold the spirits killed by Winchester rifles and, as long as she kept building, she would live.

Sarah moved from Boston to San Jose, bought a farmhouse on three acres, hired builders, and built. And built. She did not hire an architect, instead designing the house herself. She was only 4'10" and she suffered from arthritis, so the stair rails and the risers are very short. Sarah was fascinated with the number 13 and with spiderwebs, incorporating both in the design of the house.

Because it was dark and we only had flashlights, I was really disoriented. Many of the staircases have twists and turns, so I was also a little dizzy. The windows are beautiful, although difficult to appreciate in the dark. Some of the features are quite innovative: there is a solarium where the excess water from watering the plants drains through the floor and waters the garden outside. There are staircases that lead to the ceiling, a beautiful stained glass window that not only faces north--which means the sun would never shine through it--but also is blocked by an outside wall.

During the 1906 earthquake, Sarah was trapped in one of the rooms of the house. The tower collapsed, shifting the wall sideways, squashing the door which still bears the mark of the crowbar used to pry it open. Sarah moved out of the house (but kept on building) into a houseboat. Six months later, the houseboat caught on fire and Sarah moved back into the mansion.

After the quake, the entire front of the house, where Sarah was trapped, was boarded off. A new kitchen was built and more rooms added.

There are also extensive gardens and outbuildings that we did not get to see (that tour costs extra). Sarah spared no expense in building and furnishing the house and it shows, although her original furnishings were sold off after her death.

Of the original seven acres, three are left--still pretty awesome in the middle of San Jose where real estate is a prime commodity. The Tiffany glass is awesome, both in the designs and the sheer quantity of it.

Still, I got the impression that Sarah wasn't a particularly happy woman. She was not a recluse, but San Jose was the middle of nowhere (even in 1922, the year of her death), so she would have had to travel to San Francisco to enjoy the company of her social peers. She was a tough woman to work for, although she paid her servants quite well for the day.

And, by building her Mystery House, Sarah did achieve immortality of a sort. Her story is told and her house featured on shows and in books about eccentrics and ghosts. Thousands of people tour her house and gardens and learn part of her story. But we'll never know the whole of it and that's part of the mystique.

The flashlight tour is pricey and has an age limit of 10 and older. You walk about a mile when you're done and there is no air-conditioning in the house itself. While there are three elevators, they are not used during the tour. I'd like to go back and do the entire Estate Tour, which includes the house, the gardens, and the "behind the scenes" (the basement and outbuildings).

The kids enjoyed it. We then sang "Happy Birthday" and passed out cupcakes at the picnic tables outside. We also got to keep the flashlights--and they were better quality than I thought they'd be. So we're set for camping. :)