HISTORIC HOUSES AND OTHER MYSTERIES

Thursday, January 18
New Brighton State Beach, Santa Cruz

This morning I drove an hour over the mountains (it’s California; it’s going to be over the mountains; there is just no way around them) to San Jose to see the Winchester Mystery House. It was not what I expected, exactly, although I guess it was, and they don’t let you take pictures*, which sucks. It is also extremely expensive: $29 for your hour long tour. You cannot go through without a guide. I really vastly prefer the museum model where you get to go where you want when you want and see everything should you be so inclined. But I do get why, at historic houses, this model is problematic – all the rooms, all the priceless furniture (which there isn’t any of at the Winchester House, although there is plenty of priceless other stuff,) all the priceless other stuff and the many many rooms that cannot be adequately watched. The public is a monster and cannot be trusted and so there must be tours and a guide. This is true at all the historic house museums I have been to, from the Bilmore in Asheville to Hearst Castle to that benighted Virginia tidewater plantation to the Winchester. Still, I could wish for more for my $29 at the Winchester Mystery House or $25 at Hearst Castle. At both of them, you have to pick a tour. The Winchester Mystery House offers two tours; Hearst Castle, four (five if you count the $100 per person Fancy Art tour.) At the Biltmore Estate, my hometown public mansion, last time I checked they only offered one. But that might have changed by now, who knows. It’s been a while and I hate to defend the Biltmore – they do not need my help, gods know – but at least everyone sees the same part of the house and everyone sees, basically, all of it. At the Winchester, I opted for the basic, original tour: 100 rooms, they say, although it did not seem like so many. (At the Hearst, I went with Cabins and Kitchens rather than Grand Rooms or whatever the name was. I find kitchens more interesting than ballrooms, generally speaking.)

2018-01-18 11.46.48The Winchester Mystery House, should you be unfamiliar with it, is a California legend. It is the house of Sarah Winchester, a widow whose husbands’ family invented and vastly profited from the invention and sale of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, aka the Gun that Won the West. Yup, the genocide gun. Sarah Winchester, after the death of her only child at 6 weeks from a truly horrible disease – her body unable to absorb protein, she 2018-01-18 11.25.07starved to death amid plenty – and the early loss of her husband, consulted a medium. The medium told her that she was being haunted by the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles and in order to keep them at bay, she had to move to California and start building a house – and never stop. So she did just that. For thirty years, she and her team of builders just kept right on building, 24/7. And the result is this crazy mansion in the center of San Jose. It looks much smaller outside than it does inside. There are doors to nowhere. Cupboards that are doors. Stairs that are only a couple of inches tall. Stairs that go nowhere. Floors that don’t match up. Windows in the floor. Bell towers. Matching rooms. And Tiffany glass and chandeliers and custom imprinted wallpaper to die for and turrets and greenhouses and slate floors and oh my god, I could spend days there if they would let me. I mean, Victorian architecture was already somewhat nuts – the Winchester House takes that nuts and magnifies it by several squillion. It’s fucking cool as hell.**

2018-01-18 11.25.12It’s been a few days now since I wrote this and the more I think about the Winchester House, the more I wish that I had opted to take both tours – the second tour apparently builds on the first, so really it’s more like one expanded tour – even though it was a ridiculous amount of money and I was cranky by then. But I regret it now, because I’ll probably never be back in San Jose and I really liked the Winchester House. As I think back on it, I also just keep getting more respect for Sarah Winchester. She had no training or formal background as an architect or a builder or an engineer – none of those things that we would consider necessary nowadays even to cobble together a tiny house. She probably never took a math class as we understand math. Yet she planned and built this mansion that is, while just a little eccentric, attractive, filled with natural light and rock solid to this day. It is sitting there withstanding the onslaught of hundreds if not thousands of tourists daily and it does not so much as squeak or sway. Even the rooms that were damaged by the earthquakes – the house withstood both 1906 and 1989, not to mention all the other small quakes that apparently are endemic here (although I have not yet felt one and frankly that is OK and I can live without that particular California experience) – are in pretty damn good shape. Hell, I paid actual rent for places in far worse condition in 1980s Baltimore and New York. Not only was she a talented architect, but she paid her people very well, a much more than living wage by contemporary standards and by all accounts treated them just as well as she paid them. That was not common, you know, in the 1880s, probably even less than it is today. She lived alone (well, except for like 50 staff, okay) and she lived her life on her own terms, created something, farmed fruit and, well, mad respect to Sarah Winchester. Pity it didn’t occur to her to stop producing guns, which, you would think would be the logical answer to appeasing the ghosts. But she didn’t and so there is that. The past! It’s morally just as problematic as the present!

_MG_5867Which brings us neatly to Hearst Castle! I can’t write about Hearst Castle. I just can’t. I keep trying and I keep bogging down. It’s not just the terrible juxtapositions of the tacky and the sublime, it’s, it’s, oh god, where do I begin? Well. It is also that I kind of want to sell my soul and get a job there, so I am sure as hell not going to slang it. And it IS supremely cool in its own crazy way. But remember that I worked at the Walters Art Museum for years, a museum that is extraordinarily focused on the conservation of art and my feelings spring from there. Oh my old Walters friends, there’s an Egyptian limestone sculpture of Bast that is I think authentic and . . . it’s a fountain. An outdoor fountain. But. I have to keep reminding myself that it is long ago enough that a case can be made for suspending taste and judgement in the interests of historical accuracy and by contemporary standards taking a fucking 16th century mahogany angel from an altarpiece and painting it fucking GOLD and putting it in a bedroom with a PINK SATIN SPREAD that would embarrass a. . . OK. OK. I have to stop. I have no right to criticize the practices of 80 years ago. I will get carried away. Italo Calvino can tell you about it – scroll about halfway down, to the inexplicably bolded section.

_MG_6840On the way home – well, or what was home at the moment, which is to say New Brighton State Beach, a perfectly lovely campground in or at any rate near Santa Cruz, where there are deer and a fabulous view down to the beach and Monterey Bay – I went to the Mystery Spot. What is it? I don’t know! It is a MYSTERY! It’s a completely goofy roadside – well, not roadside, exactly, more like drive up a half mile of utterly awful road, be forewarned, the truck did not enjoy the potholes – attraction. There’s a guide. There’s a hillside. There’s a tilted cabin. There’s a gift shop. There’s a bunch of extremely tilted things to stand on. The guide explains that the laws of physics are suspended here! Yowza! People are taller or shorter! Nothing makes sense! Do you believe it?! It’s tremendous fun. I loved every minute of it and I have no idea what it was about or why those things happened or anything at all, nor do I care. Maybe it was aliens! Probably! Whatever! But the guide was great and they give you a free yellow bumpersticker.

The guides at Hearst Castle and at the Winchester Mystery House were, regrettably, not great at all. This sucks, because these are expensive tours and a good docent can make or break your experience. The guide at Hearst Castle stumbled over his facts, didn’t know the answers to multiple questions and, I am pretty sure, omitted an entire portion of the tour. The guide at the Winchester knew her stuff but was unfriendly and unwelcoming of questions. And both tours were lectures. You know, I worked in museum education for years and even when I started working with museum docents, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – DOS, dude, our computers had Windows 3.1, whooooo scary – we were all about the interactivity. Tours work when people feel included, not when they feel condescended to. Nobody remembers a hurried lecture full of unfamiliar words. Everybody remembers the docent asking questions, suggesting scenarios, creating a cooperative learning environment. This shit is not rocket science and it is hardly unknown. Hello, Hearst Castle and Winchester Mystery House? Do better. Go to the Mystery Spot and take their tour and watch how they include the participants.

_MG_5890* You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester house. I cannot imagine where these couple of images came from, huh.. This is some BOOL SHITTA and it pisses me off. What the fuck? Why? Just have people turn off their flash like everywhere else does. The Biltmore is the same way and it pisses me off there too. The ship has sailed, folks. Everyone in the world has a camera on them at all times. Let them use it and give them a hashtag to go along with it and LO insta free advertising. It is a no brainer and just about every museum has decided to go with it, except, for some damn reason, these historic houses. Hearst Castle does allow photos, thank the gods. It’s not Hearst Castle’s fault that my pictures are underwhelming. I was overwhelmed.

** The Winchester movie, which is coming out momentarily, does not look cool as hell but simply like 2 hours of hell. They made us watch the trailer at the end of the tour. It looked godawful and that’s a shame, because there is one hell of an interesting movie that COULD be made here.

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