One of the most exciting projects I have had the opportunity to work on in the past few years is a collaboration with an artist and good friend in Minneapolis. Due to our shared interest in cultural geography and the weird and wonderful tourist landscape, we began to create book-length publications that explore ideas of land, site, history, and American material culture. These publications are printed in limited editions of 100-250 and include photography, drawings, essays, documentation of site-specific installations, and other artifacts from our travels. We currently have four titles in print, made possible by a generous grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board. The following is a short piece I wrote for our first book project, Mystery Spot, which has become the first volume in an ongoing series.
Preservation and Entropy
The Winchester mansion in San Jose, California, was once an eight-room farmhouse. Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, purchased the property in 1884. By 1906, the year of the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake, the house had grown into a seven-story mansion. After the earthquake it was reduced to its current four-story height, but construction continued for as long as Sarah Winchester was alive. It is said that on the day of her death in 1922, when carpenters heard the news, nails were left half-driven. In a house with 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens, this is just one of the apocryphal stories that has accumulated at the four-acre property in the Silicon Valley.
Tours of the Winchester mansion are offered to the public every day of the year save Christmas. The preservation process, like the building process, is perpetual. 20,000 gallons of paint are required to cover the exterior of the house, and the painting process takes so long to complete that by the time work has finished it is time to begin again. Much of the woodwork and many of the original fixtures are cordoned off or behind glass, and various collections of period furniture have been brought in to replace Sarah Winchester’s belongings, which were auctioned off after her death. One wing of the house, however, has been kept empty and in the state of disrepair brought on by the 1906 earthquake. Here, as in the rest of the house, guide ropes and carpeted paths maintain the distance between visitors and the attraction. Unlike the rest of the house, however, these rooms are billed as a “frozen moment in time,” as if entropy itself could be preserved.
The Winchester tour guide monologue focuses on the peculiarities of the owner’s ever-changing and enigmatic design and on the incredible arithmetic of the house itself. But something is missing from the hour-long tour. The eight-room farmhouse that stood on the site in 1884 has been all but lost in the process of building and rebuilding. While standing in one of the mansion’s many kitchens toward the end of the tour, visitors are informed that they may be standing in a section of the house near where the farmhouse once stood, but the location and dimensions of the oldest rooms are unknown. In a house that was renovated upwards of 600 times, a set of steps and a sentence of tour monologue are all that remain to represent the original structure.