The Woman Who Built the House on Flat Land

She bought the property in the Santa Clara Valley in 1884. Almond, apricot, peach and plum orchards covered the flat tidal lands at the bottom end of San Francisco Bay. The eight room farmhouse was under construction just outside a small agricultural town known as San Jose.

The woman had been a widow for 5 years when she arrived in California, and had suffered the loss of her only daughter, an infant 4 weeks old. She came with servants, the mind-boggling sum of $20,000,000 dollars, and a definite plan.

Being a woman of means during her time, she visited mediums in Boston before leaving the Connecticut of her birth. The spiritualists likely were very well paid, and told her a remarkable and dark story during her efforts to communicate with her dead child and husband. It was of this she was thinking of as she surveyed the farmhouse and the galloping horse weather cock on its roof.

There was no time to lose. The work must begin.

As money was no issue, her carpenters, masons, and wood carvers could work non-stop. “The work must never cease,” the mediums said. “The sound of hammering, chipping away, and all the noise must be continuous.”

She designed the house herself. She knew that the spirits, particularly the evil ones who wanted revenge for the results of her husband’s livelihood, would be confused by her design. Doors opened on solid walls. Doors opened to the open sky. Stairs lead to dead ends. Stairs crisscrossed one another. Open shafts topped by skylights. Doors that lead into the shafts. The house grew, transmogrifying the modest farm house into a seven story labyrinthine mansion of 160 rooms at the time of her death in 1924.

A bell rang at midnight and 2 AM. That was when the widow entered the Blue room, a small square chamber in the center of the house, with a door for entry only, and another for exit only. Here she contacted the spirits, conversing with them for two hours, asking questions, seeking messages from William and Anne.

At the same time as she secured the loyalty of her workers and servants with sizable salaries often paid in gold coin, she shunned the neighborhood, wearing a black veil whenever she emerged to select fine wall paper or order a Tiffany window or select Italian tiles. Except when one day the photo below was captured, supposedly unknown to her.

The widow liked to innovate. She could afford to suggest, modify and install the latest household conveniences. She had a gas manufacturing plant built, and operated gas lighting throughout the entire house. In her conservatory a zinc sub-floor was placed under removable panels, to capture water from the plants. She designed a double sink in one of her many kitchens, inset in a sloping wooden counter into which she instructed her workers to carve a wash board, and including a molded soap holder.

The sinks had exactly thirteen drain holes.

13 panes in the Tiffany windows. 13 panels in the 13th bathroom. 13 hooks in each cupboard, one for each of the widow’s 13 colored séance robes. There are 13 date palms lining the drive to the Carriage House with 13 windows. Her Grand Ballroom chandelier came all the way from France with only twelve lights. She had a thirteenth added.

When an earthquake severely damaged the house in 1906, the widow closed up many of the rooms. The iconic 7 story tower had to be removed. She herself had to be rescued from the bedroom where she had been sleeping when one of the walls fell and trapped her. After this her mansion never went any higher than four floors.

Rooms were added, renovated, closed up, and renovated again. Skilled workmen covered the sides of the exterior with fish-scale shingles. They built corbels and cartouches, and added finials to the remaining turrets, copulas and witch’s caps. The house absorbed outer walls as it grew. Windows were enclosed inside. The galloping horse weather cock was placed on one of its many roofs.

Toward the end of the widow’s life, a niece who had been residing in Menlo Park just north of San Jose came to live with her, functioning as a personal aide and secretary. The widow, seemingly content with her endless project, passed to the other side at the considerably respectable age of 82. Her niece inherited all of her personal property and promptly sold it. The widow left behind no journals, letters or writings of any kind. Her loyal servants refused interviews. Her body was returned to Connecticut.

She had named the place “Llanada Villa” – “House on Flat Land”. She worked all her life to soothe the souls of those killed by the rifles her husband’s company produced by the thousands, improved in 1873 with steel mechanisms and heavier-center cartridges.

The Winchester Rifle earned a dubious name as “The Gun that Won the West.”

Mrs. Winchester never forgot it.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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The Woman Who Built the House on Flat Land — 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this — I had no idea what Mrs. Winchester had actually called her house! I’ve been there several times, and maybe I’m not particularly sensitive, but I don’t find it spooky at all. What I notice are all the clever little touches that a male designer would never have thought of — like the little saddle-shaped doohickeys in the corners of the stairsteps that prevent dust bunnies from growing there, and the outdoor faucets on the second floor that were used to water her garden. Having been through a few remodeling projects myself, I know that what you wind up with is not always what you intended when you began. So I always suspect that most of the odd-seeming design choices that the tour guides say were meant to “confuse the spirits” actually stemmed from some plan or other that didn’t work out and got changed in midstream. My feeling is that the house was a lifelong creative outlet for a brilliant designer and experimentalist. To me, it’s beautiful and inspiring. IMO, the real tragedy is that social pressures prevented Mrs. Winchester from becoming an architect or otherwise sharing her beautiful and clever design ideas with the world.