Thursday, November 22, 2012

Places I Won't Model IV: The Winchester House

One of the problems of being into model railroading as an outlet for a frustrated architect or architectural historian is that there's plenty of buildings that would be fun to treat as models, but won't fit on my model railroad.

I mean, if I'm modeling the Santa Clara Valley, how can I not want to build a model of the Winchester Mystery House?

I thought about this as I took on my self-appointed position as Edith Daley Fan Club president, for Edith published a two-part story on Sarah Winchester's house just after Sarah's death.

"That combination of sensations marked my first close-up impression of the Winchester place, or all [of the] Winchester place that could be seen by standing on the narrow cement sidewalk outside the grounds, with an inquisitive and unapologetic nose almost giving an Eskimo salutation to the cold iron of the elaborately grilled iron gate which was securely barred. Entrance gate, through which no one, unless 'on business', might enter.
Listening to the sounds of carpentry, sniffing at the odor of paint, one remembered a thing of common report: that the rich Mrs. Winchester who lives in this mysterious house with locked gates, is said to believe that when she stops building… she will die!"

Looks like those myths about Sarah's reasons for building aren't just a modern myth.

Edith's stories ran in the September 18 and September 19, 1922 San Jose Evening News, for those of you relentlessly consuming all of Edith's works.

Edith was a big deal for the Evening News. She also had her fiction published in the newspaper, but her adjective-laden reporting was probably what kept the paychecks coming. For example, consider Edith's reporting on William Hightower's murder trial for killing Rev. Father Patrick Heslin from Colma in the October 14, 1921 Evening News:

And "District Attorney Swart had a lot to say about that machine and the fact that Hightower confesses to having experimented with this rotary machine gun and poison gas. 'No good citizen', said Swart, 'will be experimenting with such things." ... The defense attorney explained "that the Chinaman who invented gunpowder was probably an inoffensive tea-drinking Oriental pursuing his experiments on the banks of a Chinese river --- without a thought of blowing up his countrymen!"
Hightower got life, BTW. His "dream girl", Peggy Curtis True, attempted to reach him when the verdict was read, but the guards held her back. Stories like this convince me we need to return to those happier and simpler days of traditional values when men experimented with machine guns and poison gas.

[Edith Daley hasn't written anything on the Southern Pacific that I've found, but I'll forgive her for that. The Winchester Mystery House still exists and is open for tours, but never had rail service and won't ever appear on my model railroad. Picture cribbed from the Wikipedia article on the Winchester Mystery House.]


  1. Just think how great a model would be, though, especially if it had a complete interior :)
    Don Ball

  2. With all the doors that open on walls and stairways going to the ceiling, I'd at least be able to use up all the spare castings in my scrap box!

  3. Side note: I've got an 80 year old neighbor currently giving tours at the Mystery House. He also was a tour guide when he was a teenager. I mostly pester him with questions about his summers at the Dole cannery.