The Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

“Winchester Mystery House™ is an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship – marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least. Tour guides must warn people not to stray from the group or they could be lost for hours! Countless questions come to mind as you wander through the mansion – such as, what was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?

Some of the architectural oddities may have practical explanations. For example, the Switchback Staircase, which has seven flights with forty four steps, and rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis was quite severe in her later years, and the stairway may have been designed to accommodate her disability.” [From The Winchester Mystery House Website]

Sarah Winchester

Sarah Winchester

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. The couple’s life together was happy, and they enjoyed the best of New England society. However, in 1866, their young daughter, Annie developed a childhood disease (marasmus) and died. Sarah never fully recovered.

When her husband contracted tuberculosis and died in March of 1881, Sarah was beyond despair. As a result of her husband’s death, Sarah inherited an unimaginable $20 million and nearly half ownership in the ultra successful Winchester manufacturing company. Her share resulted in a $1000 per day salary (the equivalent of $20,000 per day in today’s dollars).

Completely distraught by these tragedies, Sarah consulted a medium in Boston, who claimed that a curse had been put upon the Winchester family ~ by the ghosts of those gunned down by the Winchester repeating rifle. The medium told her the that only way to calm the vengeful spirits was to use her $20 million inheritance to build a home that would confuse the apparitions. She instructed Sarah to continually add on to her house, and that if the renovations ever stopped, the ghosts would claim her life.

Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

In 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an unfinished farm house just three miles west of San Jose – and over the next thirty-eight years she produced the sprawling complex we know today as the Winchester Mystery House.

Winchester routinely held séances to get building instructions for the next day from the spirit world, from spirits like caretaker Clyde. Clyde still walks the halls, according to local psychic Annette Martin, who claims she has unlocked the secrets of the Winchester house by channeling Clyde. He communicates to her through scribbles. Martin says that Winchester told Clyde to stay and take care of the house.

“He comes here to remember the happy, happy times with Sarah and her wonderful organ music,” Martin adds.

When Sarah Winchester died in 1922, the construction stopped. Consequently, all the mysteries of the home may never truly be understood — its odd twists and turns, or doors leading to nowhere and stairs headed to the ceiling.

How would you like to wander through 110 of the 160 rooms of this Victorian mansion, and maybe bump into her on the tour? The house is full of unexplainable details and features, just a few of which are listed below:

  • The cost: the house cost about $5,500,000 to build back at the turn of the 20th century
  • The size: the house was originally situated on a tract of land measuring approximately 161.919 acres. Most of this land was sold off at a later date; the house itself covers just 4 acres. The original version of the house featured seven complete stories. Unfortunately, the earthquake of 1906 brought the house down to four stories, and two functioning basements.
  • The paint: In order to paint the entire home once it would take more than 20,000 gallons of paint.
Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Oddities inside the Winchester Mystery House include:

  • more than 1,257 window frames
  • more than 10,000 windowpanes
  • more than 467 doorways are evident within the house
  • more than 950 doors (not including cabinets)
  • more than 40 bedrooms in the house
  • 40 different staircases
  • 17 chimneys are still intact within the house, with the remnants of two others still visible

The unexplainable is waiting for you inside the Winchester Mystery House, so get ready for an adventure.

Visitors may begin touring the house at 9:00 AM. Hours fluctuate throughout the year, so be sure to contact the house administration for more details. Tour prices range from $20 to $30. Annual passes are also available. For more information on the Winchester Mystery House, please visit www.winchestermysteryhouse.com.

The Winchester Mystery house is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California.

For a great page about ghosts and orbs captured in visitor photos, go to Ghost in my Suitcase.

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Historic Preservation, San Jose, CA

The block you see below is now almost completely vacant. Courtesy of Google maps, we can see all of the structures that used to exist, dating all the way back to 1898. These were once grand Victorian homes, full of real people with real stories. Right smack in the middle of it all was a 1903 Colonial Revival Church. Now, thanks to our unenforced vacant building ordinances, they are gone.

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

This is the current situation in San Jose, California. If you are a vacant historic building, your days are numbered. Just since moving to my neighborhood in February, 2010, I have witnessed 2 suspicious fires to vacant buildings, one of which was slated for inclusion in the National Register, 3 needless teardowns of Victorians, and plenty of other troubling activities.

Delmas Church, Before

Delmas Church, Before. This was a Colonial Revival Church built by then pastor Reverend Emil Meyer in 1903, as First German Evangelical Lutheran Church

Delmas Church, After

Delmas Church, After

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

A suspicious fire on March 23, 2010 consumed the 1903 church on Delmas Avenue. After the discovery of asbestos, the fire investigation was delayed. There has been no news about the cause since.

The church was to be saved and restored, and put on the National Historic Register. The fire changed all that. Sadly, after the church burned, all of the surrounding vacant Victorians were unceremoniously torn down, one after the other. They had been slated for demolition by the owner of the parcel, Mark Robson and Delmas Park LLC.

The Unfortunate Victims
There will never be another 1898 Queen Anne Victorian at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenues. [See below].

German immigrant Louis Bauer acquired the lot at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenue (201-203 Delmas) in 1898 and built his Queen Anne style home. He added a store several years later.

Bauer was a well-known and respected community member who owned a popular saloon on the Alameda among other investments. Before living in this neighborhood myself, I had watched his poor home languish for 10 years on the corner.

Widow Mary Kerr bought the 253 Delmas lot in 1901. She hired architect William Klinkert and contractor D. A. Charteier to design and build her six-room, $1200 home.

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

A newspaper article featured her home as an example of the pretty homes being built in the district.

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

John Peschal bought the 255 Delmas lot in 1904. His contractor was the firm of Baron and Woehl. Peschal was a clerk for the popular downtown saloon, “The Tower”. Although all of these buildings could have been moved and salvaged, they were not.

A few blocks away, River Street is being revitalized. Little Italy San Jose could have used some nice Victorians for filling in blank spots. Check them out on Facebook at Little Italy San Jose.

The latest victim?

Only a few blocks away, JNSJ Roofing Co‎. was the former tenant of this cute little 1915 Victorian at 691 San Carlos Street, San Jose. Take a good look, because it is no more.

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA. Before.

A four-alarm fire burned the two-story building on Sunday afternoon, June 13th. The blaze was reported at 12:30 p.m. at 691 San Carlos Street. Firefighters declared the flames under control by about 2:40 p.m.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but I can’t. If you have vacant historic buildings in your neighborhood, and you don’t want to see “demolition by neglect”, contact your city councilmember.

691 San Carlos Street. After.

691 San Carlos Street. After. Photo Credit: "smokeshowing" on Flickr.

Let them know you support new laws to keep abandoned buildings secure and protected from fires.

UPDATE: 1/1/2011: The little Victorian at 691 San Sarlos is being rebuilt, and I’m happy to report it looks as though they are restoring it, with historic character intact!

More recent “suspicious” fires…….

Houghton Donner House
The Mansion burned down July 19th, 2007 under “suspicious” circumstances.  Preservation Action Council of San Jose had repeatedly made the City aware that it was being broken into and used by vagrants.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

It was owned Barry Swenson Builders who had proposed building a 200+ unit residential tower on the site.  A nonprofit housing organization was working to relocate and rehabilitate the house and use it for offices. We blogged about this here.

It is worthy of note that on April 26th, 2010 the following memo was presented to the Mayor. “Approval of an ordinance amending Chapter 17.38 – Neglected Vacant Houses Ordinance”

Read the details here:

http://www.sanjoseca.gov/clerk/Agenda/20100511/20100511_0401.pdf

Apparently this ordinance didn’t do a thing to stop the destruction of all the above mentioned historic structures.

Forney House falls, and 150 years of history is replaced by a bank

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

MILLTOWN, NEW JERSEY: Last Friday marked the end of the fight to save The Forney House (circa 1860’s) in Milltown, NJ. And why was this old beauty torn down? To build a Valley National Bank.

Just what we need. A bank.

Even scarier is that the exact same thing happened to the Victorian across the street ~ which was demolished to build ~ you guessed it ~ a bank. In a town of 7,500 residents, it would seem that 4 banks are enough.

HISTORY: In 1907 Dr. Norman Forney Sr. came to Milltown with his horse and carriage and began practicing medicine. The home where he lived and practiced was built in the 1860s by John Evans, father of Milltown’s first Mayor, John C. Evans.

Dr. Forney Sr. was later joined by his sons, Norman Jr. and Charles. They owned and operated the clinic in this building until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.

The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.

[From the Milltown Voice] “Resident Michael Shakarjian, president of the citizens’ group, said the demolition of the house could have been prevented if there had been greater scrutiny of the process on the part of elected officials.

Shakarjian particularly called out [Mayor Gloria] Bradford, saying she did not do anything to help matters during the process when he sent her a letter outlining what he, and 400 others who signed the letter, perceived as a failure to follow protocols on the part of the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), whose approval was necessary before the bank could move forward.”

“She does not think it’s a serious situation,” Shakarjian said of Bradford. “That’s what the problem is — none of these people think it’s serious.”

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

“It was definitely sad to see it come down,” said Harto, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee. “If we stepped in on that, we would just be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” Harto said. “It wouldn’t have helped at this point, but it would have helped 20 years ago when Dr. [Bhudev] Sharma started neglecting the property.”

“Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.” [Preservation NJ website]

What can we do about this?

Email the whitehouse to ask that we strengthen the Section 106 Laws, so that this doesn’t happen again. Better yet, ask that Historic Preservation Ordinances be mandatory.

Even the Grand Dames have fallen on hard times

The Redman House, in happier times

The Redman House, in happier times

[From “The Redman House“]

WATSONVILLE, CALIFORNIA: The Redman-Hirahara House is a prime example of a West Coast Victorian farm estate home situated on almost 14 acres of farmland clearly visible from Scenic Highway 1 in the Pajaro Valley on California’s Central Coast.

She greets passersby like a grand lady who has fallen on hard times, just a faint relic of the noble and gracious beauty that commanded the views of the river and valley from her perch on West Beach Road.

Driving through the Pajaro Valley, travelers cannot miss the stately Queen Anne Victorian which stands in the middle of a farm field as a symbol of history.

The house was built for James Redman in 1897; designed by renowned architect William H. Weeks. The building contract was let to the local firm of Lamborn and Uren, at a negotiated cost of $3,368. The interior of the home was finished in eastern oak, birds eye maple and natural hardwoods. It was outfitted with all the conveniences for modern housekeeping.

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

When the James Redman family died out in the 1930s, the house and property were sold to the Hirahara family, one of the first Japanese-American families to own farmland in the nation. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Hirahara family, along with the other Japanese families across the state, were removed and delivered to internment camps. The Hirahara family managed to maintain ownership of the house and land, with the often-anonymous assistance from the Watsonville community. After the war they returned home and made the house and converted barn into an interim home for several other Japanese families while they reestablished themselves in the community.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the house and land was sold to Green Farm, a partnership of investors. The land was leased for commercial strawberry farming and the house left to deteriorate. There were “profitable development plans” at that time, much to the dismay of locals.

In 1998, a group of Pajaro Valley residents formed The Redman House Committee to determine what could be done to save the neglected and vacant 100-year old Victorian house. The Committee added the house to the National Registry of Historic Places to prohibit demolition, leased the now pallid land and abandoned farmstead, and designed a conceptual master plan to transform the site into a landmark Visitor and Cultural Education center.

In February of 2005, the property was purchased by The Redman-Hirahara Foundation with borrowed funds for $1.9 million. The surrounding 10 acres of farmland now produces colorful organic crops year-round.

To help restore this beloved jewel, go to: Save the Redman House.

Mystery Victorian of the week!

Mystery Victorian, Monte Sereno, CA

Building Hugger T-shirt

Building Hugger T-shirt

Ok gang. Here you go! See if you can identify this spectacular Victorian, located in Monte Sereno, CA. That’s the only clue! Meanwhile, I am writing an article about it, and by the time we have a winner, I should be ready to publish!

The winner receives this fabulous “BUILDING HUGGER” T-shirt (take a look at your selection here).

Save the past!

Now THAT'S a house!

Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, South Africa

I was asking myself this evening, as I rode past several gorgeous Victorians, sprinkled in among heinous 1960’s apartment boxes, how does one whip passion into a hapless and misguided society? As I cruised past an 1890’s commercial building that was boarded up, I thought “what a loss”. Wouldn’t everyone prefer to see a row of gorgeous Victorians, intact, in lieu of a patchwork quilt of McArchitecture?

I’m sure I should have been born around 1876, but besides all that, there is an “old way of seeing” that precious few still practice. To understand how “main street”, historic preservation, and beautiful old buildings help to create community, I highly suggest “The Old Way of Seeing” by Jonathan Hale.

Brought to you by Jennifer A. Emmer, Feng Shui Consultant, Interior Designer, and Fierce Preservationist.