My readers send me questions and I’m publishing this one because it’s a good fit for my Urban Renewal column:
“Between 1900 – 1922…there were 18 elaborate mansions built in lake tahoe nevada by intelligent successful billionaires…probably high IQ’S to boot none the less….”by 1968 all the properties were acquired back to the state of nevada”…one would think how could it be possible that all these special families could lose these valuable properties!”
Here’s my response, which quickly turned into a piece about The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose:
I don’t know what happened in Lake Tahoe but it’s clear that most old mansions are owned by the state or the National Park Service. Those that remain privately owned tend to get subdivided and turned into high density multifamily housing. For example, there is a neighborhood of old lakefront mansions in a Detroit suburb called Grosse Pointe that are still privately owned but they’ve been subdivided into apartments. It’s rare for old mansions to remain in the family and to keep their original grandeur. With that said, I know of a family right here in the Bay Area that held onto theirs and it happens to be the largest one in the United States. It’s the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Sarah Winchester did not leave it to anyone in her will and so her estate attorney put it up for sale and in 1923 a family bought it and they still own it. In 1997 the members who owned it were Edna May Raney of Belmont; Gerard Raney of Redwood City; Ray Farris Sr. of Monte Sereno; Ray Farris II and Sandra Farris of Monte Sereno; and M. Valerie Bovone of San Jose.
The Winchester Mystery House is a tourist attraction and the tickets cost $40 per adult for the grand tour of the estate. A regular tour of the mansion costs $30 per adult, $27 for seniors and $20 for kids under age twelve. On average there are approximately 20 to 25 customers per tour which takes one hour. They start a new tour every twenty minutes, which means that there are three separate groups of tourists walking through the mansion at the same time. The first tour is at 9 am, and the last one is sometimes at 5 pm, sometimes at 6 pm and during the summer it’s at 7 pm. I estimate that their revenue on one short day (9 am to 5 pm) is about $15,000. They pay their seasonal tour guides $8.40 per hour with no health or dental insurance. The tour guides also clean the inside of the mansion.
The reason why it’s a popular tourist attraction is because the owners promote it as a haunted mansion. That’s just a marketing gimmick. It’s not haunted. If the property owners thought that it was than they would have installed infrared cameras throughout the house thirty years ago. They would have hired a full time ghost hunter and they would own every ghost detection device that has ever been invented. They’re making $15,000 a day and so they can afford anything they want. They’re a bunch of liars. They know that if they install the equipment and then a year goes by without a ghost sighting than it will prove that there isn’t one and then they’ll go out of business.
Last spring they contracted with professional movie producers in Beverly Hills, CA and in London, England. Both of them specialize in making horror movies. I thought it was a good idea to make a movie like Amityville because they’re fun and profitable and no one believes that they’re true anyway. I had a conversation with the producer in Beverly Hills and he said that he wanted to portray Sarah Winchester in a sympathic light – as a woman who suffered from chronic insomnia and mental illness, and that the insane factor in the house came from her paranoia. He seemed to genuinely want to paint a picture of a mentally ill person’s living nightmare, which is exactly what it is. However, I just looked at the Winchester website and saw that a movie producer (him?) created fake footage of ghost sightings at the mansion and posted them there in order to fool the public into believing that the mansion is actually haunted. To view the videos click on this link.
It’s not haunted. Tourists mention spirit light orbs in the photographs they take in any “haunted” building. It’s a simple magic trick: Just spray a fine mist of water in the air before people arrive with their cameras. When mist gets on a camera lens and then the flash goes off than the picture will have an orb in it. The same thing happens in cemeteries after the sprinklers have been on.
The only thing that’s legitimately strange about that mansion is that it has a really bad floor plan. The original homeowner who built it, Sarah Winchester, got into fights with all of her architects and she fired them and then she tried to design the house by herself. She stayed up every night trying to figure out how to do it and she got about four hours of sleep and so she was sleep deprived.
The 1906 earthquake contributed to the problem, too. The original mansion was seven stories high but the earthquake destroyed entire sections of it and much of it had to be removed and it wasn’t replaced. With that said, the earthquake is not the reason why there’s a door that opens to the sky because it never had a balcony or stairs to begin with. I assume that Winchester planned to build something there and then she changed her mind.
Rumor has it that the reason why she built the largest mansion in the country is because a psychic in Boston told her to. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that Victorian elitists stayed together and that by the time that Winchester left the east coast and arrived in Menlo Park in 1884 many of the other tycoons were already there. Both Woodside and Atherton (which was called Menlo Park and Fair Oaks back then) had already been developed by the wealthiest families in San Francisco. Saratoga had been a resort destination for the elite since the late 1860’s. Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford owned a large horse farm in Palo Alto which, coincidentally, they began to convert into their university at roughly the same time that Winchester arrived in Menlo Park. If you’re wondering why she didn’t buy a house that was located close to the “in” crowd, she did. Winchester bought 30 acres of vacant land and three adjacent houses in Atherton. She bought 140 acres in Los Altos (then called Banks and Braes) which she sold because the railroad was moving onto her property. She bought a large ranch in Palo Alto near Stanford University, and also a house in Burlingame which is located next to Hillsborough. Additionally, she bought 98 acres of marsh land called Coyote Point where houseboats could be moored because they were trendy back then. I don’t know why she chose to settle down in San Jose, but I presume it was because the property was 160 acres and therefore it was large enough to build the biggest mansion on the entire planet, with an entire community of out buildings and farmland. It’s as if she owned her own town. George Washington did that with his Mt. Vernon estate, and Thomas Jefferson did it with his Monticello estate.