Hello Friends and Family,

1977 - Winchester Mystery House and Hearst Castle

Link to this year's index by clicking here.

This week, we have something a little different — two incredible residences both built by very rich but very eccentric individuals. Both properties are located in California, preserved and open to tours by the public.

The first is the Winchester Mystery House located in San Jose. It was built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms magnate William Wirt Winchester. In 1881, she inherited more than $20,500,00 (worth approximately $536 million today) plus 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Can we agree that she was filthy rich?

The story goes that she was haunted by ghosts of the people killed by the firearms made by the company she inherited. Supposedly, she was convinced that only by moving West and continuously building a house in which she could hide from those spirits would she be able to escape their haunting.

In 1884, she purchased an unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley and began remodeling it to build her mansion.

But why did she choose San Jose? Wikipedia doesn't say but the story I heard was that she was terrified of thunderstorms and had read that such weather phenomena did not plague the south San Francisco Bay area. Apparently, no one told her about the earthquakes that do plague the area.

Carpenters were hired and worked on the house day and night until it became a seven-story mansion. Sarah personally designed the mansion, in a rather haphazard fashion. Some doors and stairs go nowhere, windows overlook other rooms, and stairs have odd-sized risers. One can only infer that she thought those design elements would confuse the ghosts that seemed to haunt her life. The building and rebuilding went on during Sarah's entire life in San Jose.

Before the great earthquake of 1906, the house had reached seven stories high. Afterward, carpenters were brought in to repair damages caused by that quake then resume the building and rebuilding. Today it is only four stories.

According to Wikipedia, "There are roughly 161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished) as well as 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys (with evidence of two others), two basement levels, and three elevators."

BTW, the flashlight tour on Halloween evening is considered something not to be missed — sorry I missed it while I lived in the area. According to some accounts, the Winchester House was Walt Disney's inspiration for The Haunted Mansion at the Disney Parks.

The second residence of interest is Hearst Castle located at San Simeon, on the central coast of California. The very rich but very eccentric builder was William Randolph Hearst who was a businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician known for developing the nation's largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications. His flamboyant methods of yellow journalism influenced the nation's popular media by emphasizing sensationalism and human interest stories.

In 1919, Hearst inherited some $11 million (equivalent to nearly $170M today) and properties, including the land at San Simeon. He used his fortune to further develop his media empire of newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, the profits from which supported a lifetime of building and collecting.

At least he had the good sense to hire female architect, Julia Morgan, to design and arrange this incredible estate that he called "The Ranch". Working in close collaboration with Hearst for over twenty years, her best-known creation is the castle at San Simeon.

In the Roaring Twenties and into the 1930s, Hearst Castle reached its social peak. It was originally intended as a family home for Hearst, his wife Millicent, and their five sons. However, by 1925, he and Millicent had effectively separated and he held court at San Simeon with his mistress, the actress, Marion Davies. Their guest list comprised most of the Hollywood stars of the period; Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. Some of those stars visited on multiple occasions. Political luminaries included Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill — other notables such as Charles Lindbergh, P. G. Wodehouse, and Bernard Shaw also visited.

Wikipedia notes, "Hearst, his castle and his lifestyle were satirized by Orson Welles in his 1941 film Citizen Kane. In the film, which Hearst sought to suppress, Charles Foster Kane's palace, Xanadu, is said to contain 'paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palaces — a collection of everything so big it can never be cataloged or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world'."

In 1947, Hearst was in failing health and he, together with Marion Davies left San Simeon for the last time. He died in 1951. Six years later, the Hearst family donated the castle, its contents, and the hill upon which it stands to the State of California. It is open to the public with tours starting at the visitors' center at the base of the hill — with guests transported by bus to the summit, then led by tour guides to various parts of the estate. Note that there are different tours and it is advisable to book your tours prior to arriving, especially in the busy summer months.

After you visit both the Winchester Mystery House and Hearst Castle do sit down and ponder how these two estates were built — with similar starting points but vastly different results.

I do feel the need to apologize for the limited number of photos that I had available to share showing these two very interesting properties. The fact is that most of the tours were indoors and my old (primitive) Minolta SLR together with Kodachrome 64 was not up to capturing very many low-light interior shots. I hope you enjoyed what I did capture nonetheless.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com