Travels With TL: The House That Won the West

winchester house (2)As a kid, I indulged in comic books. Not any of the Marvel or other superheroes so prominent today; I focused mostly on Richie Rich, with some Archies and Casper, the Friendly Ghost.

I don’t recall a single one of these comics now, but inside some of them were page-long stories, and those I remember better. There was one about a sailor turned rancher who flummoxed his new community by not branding his cattle. Of course, rustlers tried to take advantage, but he tracked them down, and when everyone demanded proof that these were his cattle, his turned up one bovine’s lip to show an anchor tattooed on the inside — exactly matching the anchor on the sailor-rancher’s arm.

I don’t know if that was a true story, but the one that gripped me the most certainly was. It told of Sarah Winchester, married to the heir of the rifle fortune, after the sad loss of her husband and child. A believer in the hereafter, she held many seances, and the spirits soon started telling her that if she built a house and kept building, she wouldn’t die. With a pretty much endless supply of money, that’s what she did, and her house is now a tourist attraction in San Jose, California.

After reading that, I always wanted to see the house. When I started working seasonally for American Airlines during the winter, part of the original pay package was four airline tickets. (That package dwindled and dwindled until it disappeared altogether. Everything about the pay at that job just went backwards.)

This was pre-9/11, when flight rules were a lot different, so I managed to use one of the tickets for my sister Terri, a fellow TL Livermore — and off we went to see the Winchester House.

We landed in California on a Thanksgiving Day, and couldn’t find any restaurant open except a sports bar near where the San Jose Sharks ply their hockey trade. We ate there, and the waitress recommended Half Moon Bay as a nice place to visit. We did that (she was right), and we drove our rented Dae Woo (yes, a very popular car manufacturer — Terri referred to it as our “washing machine”) all over one day, trying to find the redwood forest for the trees. We did stumble onto some secret end-of-a-road facility — a public road just ran right into a serious NO TRESPASSING We-Mean-Business gate. I read about it in some novel a couple of years later (although now I can’t remember which part of the government was hosting this), and thought, “Oh, I was there!”

We finally found the redwoods — who knew that would be so hard? — but didn’t linger, because Terri wanted to watch the sun set over the ocean. We raced to Santa Cruz (we may have just missed the sunset), where we ate at some wharfside restaurant and I bought my coveted Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs sweatshirt at a drugstore.

This was also the trip that included the Terrible Snoopy Disappointment, where we drove all the way to Santa Rosa (much farther than expected) to see the Charles Schultz homestead and museum. I can’t remember if Charles was still with us at this point, but the main focus of this entire facility was an ice rink he seemed to be (Pea)nuts about. I wanted Snoopy paraphernalia, and there just wasn’t any. The museum itself was mostly walls of blown-up comic strips, short on informative text.

(My friend Paula went many years after I did, and it sounded like the experience had improved mightily. She, at least, managed to return home with some serious Snoopy loot. All I really got was the shopping bag.)

That entire part of the trip would have been a complete bust if not for my friend Alix, who was visiting her grandfather in Santa Rosa and needed to get back to Stanford University. (I’ve already told you about her grandfather.) We took Alix back, stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge along the way. She gave us a campus tour (I bought a bourbon glass for my collection, and a Stanford sweatshirt), and we were having such a good time that we carried it on through dinner at an off-campus restaurant. It was an unexpected highlight of our trip, and took away the terrible Snoopy sting.

But mostly, we were there to fulfill my nearly lifelong desire to see the Winchester House that I read about in a comic book. And it did NOT disappoint.

Poor Sarah was a little bit unhinged. Maybe before the loss of her family, but certainly after. And when you’re unhinged and have a lot of money . . . well, let’s just say she was Job Security for an entire raft of craftsmen and service women.

In its heyday, her mansion topped seven stories. Four of those (all contained in one tower) were lost in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and Sarah herself was trapped in the rubble. Because of the vastness of the house, it took staff something like three days to locate and rescue her. But — we took the cellar tour too, wearing little plastic hard hats that wouldn’t have protected us from anything but which I’m sure made us feel special — the support structure of the house was actually eminently suited for earthquake country, built on pylons that can rock with the earth, so most of the house withstood the earth’s assault quite nicely. Lucky for me, almost a century later.

There are stairs to nowhere, doors that open to midair two stories up, big rooms, little rooms — and no real grand scheme to tie anything together. No blueprints were used, and they estimate that while 160 rooms exist, she probably had 500 to 600 built, due to renovations when she would have the work just done completely torn out. Maybe it’s just folklore for the tourists, but they tell you there’s a lengthy protocol when training guides so that they don’t wander lost in the giant expanse. (Although with so many tours, you probably are bound to wander into one sooner or later.)

And the opulence. Sarah spent about $5.5 million (which didn’t really dent her $20 million inheritance) on construction, ordering stained glass from Tiffany’s, embroidered lace curtains from around the world, and using elegant hardwoods and the latest innovations for her plumbing and heating.

While she was surrounded by servants, she never entertained guests. She paid her workers handsomely, about double the going rate (so they got $3/day), gave generously of her money (she established a tuberculosis — the disease that got her husband — research center that still exists today at Yale), but kept no journals, gave no interviews, allowed no pictures to be taken (there is one, believed to be a stealth photo taken by a gardener), and conducted her seances nightly, by herself.

Eventually the spirits — or at least time and arthritis — caught up with her, and she died in 1922 at an approximate age of 82 (her birth year is in question). Work ceased immediately. Immediately: some nails are left half-driven-in.

Her will (in 13 parts and signed by her 13 times) carefully assigned all the furnishings to her niece, clearly a woman with no appreciation for history. She sold off truckloads of furniture as soon as it was hers. Fortunately for the rest of us (or at least me), the careful will made no mention of the acreage or the mansion, which was left in the hands of her trustees. It was designated a California historic landmark in 1974.

And now, for a price, anyone can visit, and tour Sarah’s 38-year expensive eccentricity. But it’s a price well worth paying — even the part where one has to travel.

win ballroomI have my own photos, but who knows where they are now. I knew where my souvenir book was located (no souvenir sweatshirt, sadly), so I helped myself to photos from it. This is her $9,000 ballroom (entire houses could be built for $1,000) — and no one ever danced there. Beautiful, but sad, no?

2 thoughts on “Travels With TL: The House That Won the West

  1. I frequently think about this trip. And, when Tia (another TL Livermore, at least originally) and Michael and I went to Monterrey for the half marathon that wasn’t (thank goodness), I regaled them with the tale of the Redwood trip in the washing machine that used practically no gas, and as a bonus, I think we drove past the San Jose motel in which we stayed (we flew into and out of San Jose)!


  2. I frequently think about this trip. And, when Tia (another TL Livermore, at least originally) and Michael and I went to Monterrey for the half marathon that wasn’t (thank goodness), I regaled them with the tale of the Redwood trip in the washing machine that used practically no gas, and as a bonus, I think we drove past the San Jose motel in which we stayed (we flew into and out of San Jose for the 1/2 marathon)!


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