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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Politics of the Winchester House

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2007 at 1:54 PM


SF Weekly news blogger Matt Novak did some classic tourism, and came back with a bad taste in his mouth. Tastes like cordite. -d2

The House Guns Built

By Matt Novak

A ramshackle, 160-room mansion built by a nutty rifle manufacturer's heiress, beseiged by malls and parked cars on an manicured plot in San Jose, is officially termed an "attraction" by the Convention and VIsitors Bureau there, but is known properly and to millions of Californians as the "Winchester Mystery House."

It's a messy maze of architectural curiosities and non sequitors--windows in the floor, stairs to the ceiling, doors to nowhere--you may have seen on ...

the Discovery Channel, in MOMA's video collection, or on this guy's blog.

The result of four decades of continuous erection, the house is adorned with riches and rarities (Tiffany glass, hand-oiled wallpaper) arranged in a triskaidekaphobic's nightmare motif, all bought with a fortune of millions from "the gun what won the West." The story goes that Sarah Winchester blamed vengeful, gunned-down spirits for her husband's untimely death, and on the advice of a psychic, began perpetual construction on the manic mansion to dodge the demons, sleeping in a different bed every night as precaution.

After her death in 1922--of old age--the house went up for sale at a blind auction, where it was bought my members of two "long-established" Bay Area families, the Farrises and the Raneys, who began charging admission in 1925.

The mansion has become a destination for tacky tourists, gamey ghost hunters, and those who like their bizarre with a slice of cheese (a tipsy bachelorette party spilled out of a Humvee limo on the day I was there). Chotchkes are piled up in a cavernous gift shop, next to an overpriced snack stand. The gift shop and adjacent museum shoehorned into the erstwhile heiress's amazing monument also pay homage to a romantic vision of the past, wherein real men with guns tamed the Wild West.

The midget-sized, severely antisocial old widow fantasizing that the 1906 earthquake was a personal sign from supernatural powers to wall off the front 30 rooms of her house, and then rebuild them in back around a trap-doored chamber where she held seances and spoke to "the dead," was obviously seriously along in some sort of trouble, and yeah, also pretty fucking cool.

Hey, she recycled her gray water! (And had two bitchin' cars!)

Maybe Winchester was just before her time. As in olden days, New Age spiritists like Daniel Pinchbeck suggest that everyone could use a chat with some invisible beings, and that the resurrection is just one of the possibilities when the Mayan calendar knocks off in 2012.

Mrs. Winchester was reportedly sensitive about her reputation with the locals, and didn't appreciate gossip. She shut herself in the metastasizing house, promptly handing the Winchester axe to any of her servants who so much as looked at her funny. She would also pay them double the going rate for their discretion.

Today as then, Mrs. Winchester has proven a much-appreciated boon to the local economy, thanks to the ingenuity and opportunism of a couple of San Jose's citizens, and a bottomless pit of easily imprinted teens looking for summer jobs. But after eight decades the story of the village lunatic is getting old. The state has officially recognized the site as an Historic Landmark, and as such, both its history, and that of the house's erstwhile inhabitant, deserve a fresh look.

The memory of a woman scared batshit by the prospect that her husband's guns racked up a death toll might not be well served by the fact that her house is now loaded with shellcase shot glasses and well-armed snowglobes. The possibility that she may have suffered from mental illness is seemingly ignored, or brushed aside by the suggestion that, with an ostentatious inheritance, Mrs. Winchester simply had more money than she knew what to do with. Seances were a hot fad, and the old woman might have jumped on the bandwagon, like Madonna did with Kabbalah, or Britney Spears did with Madonna. In fact, necromancy was in vogue during the Victorian Gothic Revival, with a cast of celebrated, vaudeville-tinged spiritists dabbling in a still informal field of psychoanalysis for the burgeoning American bourgeoisie; but you won't find this out on the tour. Also, the tour inexplicably excludes any mention of the debate on gun control, which is very much alive today.

Sure, everybody lines up to see the haunted house. But while we're there, we could spend less time trying to tap the world of the dead and more time touching upon real-world history and social commentary.

Such educational content would clearly mark a respectable museum apart from a state-sanctioned, for-profit roadside freak show.

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David Downs


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