Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Winchester Mystery House

Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1839, Sarah Pardee was a charming young woman, blessed with musical talent and a facility with languages, when she married William Wirt Winchester -- the son of Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company -- in 1862. Just two years before, Oliver Winchester had unveiled the Henry Rifle, a magazine-loaded weapon which averaged one shot every 3 seconds; it was the first true repeating rifle, and it was the instrument behind the deaths of thousands during the Civil War.

In 1866, Sarah Winchester gave birth to a daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, but the infant Annie died just 11 days after her birth from "marasmus," a disease in which the body wastes away rapidly. Sarah became deeply tormented by her loss and retreated from the outside world. Sarah and William never had another child.

When William died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1881, the still relatively young Sarah inherited the arms fortune of the Winchester family -- $20 million, 48.9% of the Winchester Company, and an untaxed income of $1,000 per day. Distraught, Sarah consulted a spiritualist medium, who told her that the deaths of her daughter and husband were due to the curse of thousands who had died by the repeating rifle and were seeking vengeance on the Winchesters. Guided by seances, Sarah Winchester moved to the Santa Clara Valley in California and bought a 17-room home on 162 acres.

Then she began her life's work. Keeping 22 carpenters at work, year round, almost 24 hours a day from 1884 until 1922, Sarah Winchester feverishly directed the construction of a never-ending house to atone for the rifle deaths which infiltrated her consciousness. Sketching her whimsical plans on napkins and tablecloths and insisting on the best building materials, Winchester's mansion was gradually transformed into an Escher-like spatial conundrum (much of it, say her interpreters, designed to thwart the onslaught of malevolent spirits), a maze with staircases that led to nowhere; upside-down fixtures; skylights over skylights; doors that opened to blank walls; and others that opened to sheer drops inside and out. All tolled, Winchester built a 4-story house (before the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the house reached 7 stories) with 160 rooms, 467 doorways, 950 doors, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases and 2 ballrooms.

Amid the seeming chaos, Winchester shows flashes of genuine talent as an architect, and even patented several devices she designed for the house. The house became a cause celebre, but Sarah stubbornly preserved her privacy, even turning away an attempted call by Theodore Roosevelt (to his fury) in the year of the earthquake. She died on this day in 1922.

Out of her reclusive fear and despair, Sarah Winchester created a forcefully personal work of art, a perfect and harmonious expression of her discordant psychosis -- no less valid than, say, the manic piano pieces of Alkan, the torturous writings of Kafka, or the wildly iconoclastic projects of countless other "legitimate" artists. The mansion is open to tours to this day, peddled as a ghost house built by a crazy woman. Well, take it how you will.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting house; strange woman. The Winchester New Haven, Connecticut plant recently announced it will close forever. After over 140 years of operation, a lot of history moved within those doors. At that plant Winchester made the repeating rifles that were used to destroy Custer's troops. Custer's troops only had ancient single shot weapons, converted by the government.

Ron, hope you enjoy the recent change of office.

2:48 PM  

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