“Aside from recurrance, revision, and commensurate symbolic reference, echoes also reveal emptiness. Since objects always impede acoustic reflection, only empty places can create echoes of lasting clarity.” Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
After her husband died from Tuberculosis at the age of 43 in 1881, Sarah Winchester inherited $20 million dollars and 50 percent of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company stock.
Sarah stayed on the East Coast for several years before leaving New Haven, Connecticut and traveling West. Struck by an incredible amount of loss and overwhelmed by grief, Sarah Winchester went in search of something beyond her horizon. She found a home that she purchased in 1886.
The Winchester Mystery House started as an eight room farmhouse located in San Jose, California and now boasts of 161 rooms of Victorian style architecture.
The house is crawling with aporias, including doors and stairs leading to nowhere, spiderwebs on the windows, and long, winding corridors. One of the undeniably strangest aspects of the home, stems from the number thirteen that is found all over the house.
According to legend, the erratic architecture was all designed to confuse the spirits who haunted Sarah Winchester. Rumor has it, Sarah even slept in a different room every night so the spirits would not know where to find her.
Sarah’s unwillingness to conform to expectations combined with strange architectual choices – not to mention an incredible amount of wealth – left everyone wondering about Sarah’s life and home.
Just like the Winchester Mystery House left the public with a profound sense of paradox, instead of remaining in that ambiguity, the public imagination banned together to invent reasons for Sarah’s odd behavior. But what would it take to rethink the Winchester Mystery House?
First we need to establish the haunting narrative hidden beneath the floorboards that has motivated more than 12 million people to visit since tours were first offered in 1923.
If spirits did haunt Sarah Winchester? Who were they?
It is said that the spirits who haunted her were from those who lost their lives to the winchester repeating rifle, the gun her husband’s family made their fortune selling.
An early version of this weapon helped the Union army find success in the Civil War.
An evolved version of this weapon aided western expansion and was marketed as “the gun that won the west.” This weapon that could fire 15 bullets before reloading.
The spirits haunting Sarah, then, are supposedly those who died at the hand of her husband – not directly, but from the weapon that he sold all over the world.
This piece of technology was a paradox in the American mind – a paradox embodied in the memory of Sarah Winchester and manifested in the erratic architecture of her home.
Is it possible that Americans were the guilty ones? Were they so unwilling to look in the mirror and take responsibility for their own actions that Sarah Winchester and her home functioned as the scapegoat for gun violence, Native American Genocide, and civil war?
Sarah’s refusal to attend social gatherings only amplified the public’s ability to ostracize her.
Perhaps Sarah did feel immense guilt for the part she played in the slaughtering of so many.
Or perhaps this version of the story is easier for people to wrap their minds around because sitting with Sarah in her pain might be uncomfortable. In a nine year period, Sara lost her infant daughter, husband, mother, and six other family members.
Sarah and William lost their only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, five weeks after she was born. 150 years later, I witnessed Annie’s name written in red paint on the wall of The Winchester Mystery House – a house she never lived in.
So how did Sarah’s grief and pain turn into such a spectacle?
The illusionist, Harry Houdini, is partially responsible for the spectacle. Two years after Sarah’s death, Houdini held a seance here on Halloween night. Following his stay, a journalist asked him about his experience staying overnight in the home. He called the house “a mystery of mysteries” – a name that stuck – a name that has haunted the mansion ever since. Two years later, Houdini died on the same night, a death that adds life to the story.
The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, offers a transformative approach to reading architecture that opens up the vertiginous possibilities of a space to celebrate ambiguity.
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
His scheme starts with something called prefiguration. This idea calls for the reader, or the visitor, to question pre-existing beliefs about a space and just like we might do at the beginning of a narrative. These beliefs are intimately tied to the “who” of the action. For Ricoeur, ”every biography takes place in a life space.”
The difficulty in determining Sarah Winchester’s biography is that her privacy kept much of the narrative opaque. Unlike our Eastern counterparts, western minds have the tendency to conflate darkness – in this case, opacity – with danger instead beauty.
After inheriting such immense wealth, Sarah was expected to maintain her status by attending social gatherings, perhaps with the Berkeleys or the Stanfords, her neighbors down the road, or even host her own events in her grand ballroom. Similarly, the constant construction of her home set another kind of expectation – one wherein the building would eventually be complete. To this day, there are stairs and doors leading to nowhere.
Because Sarah’s actions in life and construction defied expectations: the public gaze continually configures her narrative in their own image. Configuration, for Paul Ricoeur, prompts the reader to determine whether the character of a narrative acts according to previously identified expectations.
In the case of the Winchester Mystery House and the life of Sarah Winchester, configuration is difficult. It is difficult to determine all of the reasons for her architectural choices.
The result of a confused public attempting to understand their own role in the violence of a nation is a way to make sense of a wealthy, grieving woman who was an architect, a land-owner, an orchard farmer with worldly tastes and a refusal to play into society’s expectations.
This level of reading is where the public freely and creatively invents their own narratives to make sense of her home. Nietzsche teaches us “truths are illusions about which we have forgotten that is what they are” and that is precisely how the fiction invented to make sense of the Winchester Mystery House is so strong. As a result, the space is considered haunted to this day.
The third stage in Paul Ricour’s approach to architecture and narrativity is called refiguration. Refiguration is when history and fiction, truths and illusion, come together to transform our earlier readings.
The guides of the Winchester Mystery house said again and again, whether there were spirits and seances during Sarah’s life, we will never know, but there is definitely activity in our present day.
While touring the basement area, my guide kept looking down the hall or behind the group as if there was something there. When we walked up the stairs and passed another tour group, my guide says to the other guide, the basement is definitely active.
Every time a new visitor walks through the space, new connections are made. The life of Sarah Winchester, the loss she was struck by, the house she constructed, the wealth she invested, the people she helped, the natural disasters she lived through, the stories repeated again and again every 20 minutes, the newspaper articles offering new insights, tall tales, and twisted lies, every word uttered defies a static reading and perpetuates life. The Winchester Mystery House is refigured again and again.
There is even more history that accounts for the erratic architecture, though. Certain events allow visitors to consider the space not as an answer to guilt, but as an answer to the grief that struck Sarah’s life in the form of immense loss. On top of this grief, there was a natural disaster in 1906 that had a profound effect on the unfinished space.
With this in mind, I want to propose a method of reading the Winchester Mystery House in a way that opens up and celebrates the rich connections made possible by dwelling poetically in this space. I call this reading a kind of transfiguration – I want visitors to see the life-giving beauty in Sarah Winchester and her home.
Even though she was grief stricken by the loss of those closest to her, her spirit was one of hospitality, charity, adventure, and inclusivity. Often the perpetual construction was for the purpose of building more comfortable living quarters for her servants and groundskeepers. Additionally, she used the space to host ice cream socials for the local orphanage and used her wealth to anonymously give to charitable causes.
The story we could tell of Sarah Winchester and her magnificent house is quite beautiful and reinforces that reading space with wonder has the potential to protect us against capitalism. The narrative told of this space drives the commercial use of the haunted house, but what if we could highlight her philanthropy? What if we could use her grief as a model for understanding the pain of our neighbor?
After all, Sarah made every attempt to create a beautiful space. Working with a carpenter, Sarah Winchester was both the visionary and architect behind this 24,ooo square foot wonder.
She subscribed to two architectural magazines and drove the construction of the home. Part of the reasoning behind the erratic architecture has to do with the simple fact that she built on a pre-existing structure. Shortly after purchasing the home, she began adding on rooms and floors to the bones of the house that once reached as high as seven floors.
The seventh floor was a beautiful observation deck that overlooked central California and lines and lines of trees in the fruit orchards she planted across the plains surrounding her home.
Standing on her observation deck, I imagine her releasing tiny clouds of grief into the open sky while fixing her gaze on the horizon.
“We spend our entire lives thinking about death. Without that project to divert us, I expect we would all be dreadfully bored. We would have nothing to evade, and nothing to forestall, and nothing to wonder about. Time would have no consequence.”
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
Heidegger reminds us, “a boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.”
Whether yearning for an open sky or spending months at a time on her houseboat, she found a kind rhythm in space that allowed her grief a form of expression. Virginia Woolf, a kindred spirit to Sarah Winchester, would write a letter three and a half years after Sarah’s death that seems to resonate with a poetic reading of Sarah’s artistic expression:
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than any words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.” Virginia Woolf
Writing was the medium in which Virginia Woolf chose to express the waves in her mind. And for Sarah Winchester, architecture embodies this sense of wonder.
Somehow architecture is not awarded the same privilege of perpetual interpretation as writing, especially in the case of The Winchester Mystery House. The repetition of the narrative has not evolved based on new information.
This is where we might borrow a lesson taught by Gaston Bachelard in extracting the poetics of space. He captures the essence of dynamic and potential energy at work in metaphors – even when a certain metaphor illustrates a space that sounds quiet or lacks movement:
“A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The first window displays the line from Troilus and Cressida: “Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts.”
The second offers a line from Richard III: “These same thoughts people this little world.”
These windows are traditionally read as a cry for help to escape out, but maybe Sarah was actually looking for a way in. Sarah anticipates what Martin Heidegger intuits in his profound essay, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.”
“Building and thinking are,” Heidegger writes, “each in its own way, inescapable for dwelling.”
The goal of both building and thinking is dwelling, and remember, for Heidegger, to dwell is to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for. The care and consideration she manifested in her home was radically interrupted one spring evening.
At approximately 5:12 pm on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, an earthquake that reached a magnitude as high as 8.3 shook California. The epicenter was off the shore of San Francisco leaving 80 percent of San Francisco destroyed.
Entire sections of the Winchester Mystery House were lost, including the 7th floor observation deck. Rather than rebuild them, Sarah Winchester erred on the side of conservation and practicality in her later years and decided to seal off the areas. This is the reason for the stairs that lead to nowhere and the second floor door that opens to a tragic fall.
Defying the natural order, this earthquake altered the course of many lives. Not surprisingly, tour guides tell visitors that Sarah believed the spirits were responsible for the earthquake, which is why she closed off floors and sealed off areas of the home.
I wonder if we could hold both the possibility that Sarah thought about spirits while also appreciating that she constructed this space with a profound hope that she might one day find peace in dwelling. Can we remember her grief while celebrating her charity?
Can we refigure the building in a way that offers a rationale explanation for the aporias in this space? Can we transfigure the building in a way that doesn’t just search for reason but celebrates a kind of poetic dwelling?
Just like the Winchester Mystery House perpetuates a rich ambiguity fusing both fiction and history, Paul Ricoeur says metaphor has a unique structure but two functions: “a rhetorical function and a poetic function.” Perhaps it’s time we perpetuate the poetry of the Winchester Mystery House?