Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Winchester House Has a New Room

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is a marvel of Victorian architecture. The massive mansion is a veritable labyrinth of rooms and corridors, some of which connect in a logical fashion and others which seem to go nowhere. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester fortune, believed that she could keep herself safe from evil spirits by continuously adding on to the structure, which she did until her death 38 years after construction began.

At any rate, the latest news from the Winchester house is that an entirely unknown room was recently discovered. The room occupied an attic space that was boarded up after the 1906 earthquake that damaged the house. A number of items dating back to Victorian times were apparently just left there when the room was boarded up, and were found intact.

A new room has been discovered at San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, a Victorian mansion that was home to a widow of the Winchester rifle fortune. The home’s preservation team recently opened the new room to the public.

The newly discovered room is an attic space that has been boarded up since Sarah Winchester died in 1922. Winchester boarded up the room after the 1906 earthquake because she was trapped in the room and she thought evil spirits were responsible for the quake.

The preservation team found numerous items in the room, including a pump organ, Victorian couch, dress form, sewing machine and paintings.

Some sources argue that there were breaks in the construction, so it was not continuous as the legend claims, but the result was nonetheless a gigantic, sprawling building of around 24,000 square feet. Oddly enough - or at least, I found it odd when I looked it up - the Winchester house is actually smaller than the largest house in Minnesota, the James J. Hill house. It covers a lot more ground, though, because of how it is built - as you can see from the aerial view above.

Also, some of the alleged "paranormal" things about the house are little more than folklore. For example, people commonly make note of the fact that most of the rooms incorporate at least one dimension of 13 feet - but I doubt any of them have ever owned a Victorian house. I have never seen a Victorian where most of the rooms didn't have a dimension of 13 feet, and there's a totally non-paranormal reason for that.

With Victorian wood construction, the maximum safe span you can build without additional reinforcement is about 14 feet, and if you subtract six inches on either side for a standard-thickness Victorian wall, you get an interior dimension of 13 feet. Sarah Winchester did have a thing for the number 13 and incorporated it into the decor in other places, but for the room dimensions it was more a technological limitation.

Another interesting point about the house is that for all Sarah Winchester had no formal architectural training, the house is an early example of earthquake-resistant building techniques. The house is built on a "floating foundation" that is divided into sections, such that if the soil under the house liquifies, the slabs on which it is built will "float" because it is less dense than liquified earth.

I have never had a chance to visit the Winchester Mystery House myself, but if I ever make it out to San Jose it's at the top of my list. Not only am I a fan of Victorian architecture in general, the whole story of how and why the place was built the way it was makes it all the more fascinating, whether or not bits of pieces of it have been exaggerated over the years.

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