Tuesday, December 31, 2013

DIYer Gone Mad

 I had a chance to visit the mysterious Winchester mansion in the heart of Silicon Valley with my wife and sister the other day.  This Victorian 160-room mansion, designed and built by the Winchester Rifle heiress, was filled with unexplained oddities such as staircases leading to nowhere and 2nd story doors that opened out into a 20 foot drop.

Stairway to Nowhere
Doorway on the 2nd Floor
I had been to the mansion once before as a little boy.  Back then, the mansion was in disrepair and felt more haunted and creaky.  Today, it's more "Disney-like" with a restored gardens, regular tours, a cafe and of course a very nice gift shop.

It was fun touring the mansion since we have our own little Victorian of approximate age and have a better understanding of what went into the crafting of these homes in the West.        

By far the most intriguing part of the tour and mansion was not the architecture but the force behind the development of what was once was an 8 room  farm house into a giant monster of a house that has some 10,000 windows today. 

 Sarah Winchester was a well-educated, intelligent woman who was heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune.  This rifle was credited with "taming" the West as claiming hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

Unfortunately Sarah's husband and only child died leaving her with a 20 million dollar fortune and a whole lot of time on her hands. Sarah, like all Victorian well-to-do ladies of the era,  was bred to be a good wife, a good party hostess and a good mother.  When all of that was removed from her life, what was left for this intelligent woman to do?  Well, she embarked on becoming one of the earliest DIY Home Improvement mavens of the West.   If she had her own TV show, it would probably be called  'Turning a Mansion into a Mega-Mansion With Sarah Winchester and Friends.'   Next time, try watching Vicky Payne's 'For Your Home' TV show and you might get a feeling of how Sarah Winchester approached things.

Propelled by what she learned from the various seances (spiritual talks), Sarah was convinced she had to keep adding on to her large home to appease the spirits of all those killed by her husband's deadly product.
So what you see, when you tour the mansion, are a series of large rooms, strange staircases, beautiful wallpaper, stained glass windows, conservatories and evidence of the damage caused by the great 1906 earthquake.

Sarah had men working on the house 24 hours a day, every day until she died in 1922.  I partly think the reason was that she was fearful of feeling alone at any point in the day even though she avoided people as much as possible.

Even though she had a huge fortune, it seemed Sarah was very concerned about water usage and recycling.  She had her workers build slanted floors in her conservatory so that excess water poured into all the plants would fall into removable floors that hid large metal gutters which carried the extra water into the large garden areas.  All of the kitchen counters in the house were slanted so that extra water flowed back into drains that returned water back into the garden.

Sarah also experimented with new ways to keep her house earthquake proof and warm installing elaborate mechanisms that ran an elevator, boiler and pumped water to and from the mansion.

Sarah called ALL the shots in the designing and construction of her mansion until the day she died.  Often it seemed like she had men working on several projects at once with some projects inexplicably halted before completion.

I felt I understood Sarah a little bit better after touring the house.
I know I often wake up in the morning thinking, "What if I moved that door over there?", "What if I added a staircase to the basement over here?", "How cool would it be to add a solar panel and to install a grey water system??"

I have the benefit of using a 3D computer design program to help me "see" if a new project could work without creating additional problems later.  Sarah, unconcerned about money issues, could just dictate what she wanted done.  It probably made complete sense in her mind until she would run into the roadblock of reality.  Any DIYer can understand that moment when you realize, midway through a project, that you overlooked one small aspect and now you have to make other costly changes.

I'm sure it made sense to Sarah to put a staircase in a particular place and would order her men to get to work on it immediately.  It wasn't until the project was 75% done that everyone would realize that the staircase now covered the beautiful stained glass window and blocked another room. Her solution?  Build another room around the new construction to accommodate the window which inevitably led to some other new parts of the house being nearly inaccessible or strange-looking. The mansion is FULL of these kinds of observations.

So I've come to think of Sarah Winchester not so much as a wealthy, crazy recluse....but as an intelligent woman with an active mind who enjoyed the thrill of conjuring up creative ways to add something interesting to her mansion.  Maybe she had second thoughts of whether something would work or not and turn her attention to something else without completing past projects.  The workmen did not protest lest they be fired from their lucrative jobs.  So on and on it went, layering project upon project without end.  I mean, what else could she do?

I think the tour is worth if of you are a DIYer working on any home.  You can readily see several examples of ideas that weren't thought through and Sarah was notorious for NEVER using blueprints. Why use them when you are intelligent, rich and haunted by Spirits?


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Real Tweeting and Tea

As the end of the year approaches, I look back at some of the newer things that have entered our lives and wondered how they hold up to the principles of the 'Neo-Victorian'.

This year, we went bird watching for the first time and have replaced coffee drinking with tea.   
 Bird watching?! "What has happened to me?", I wondered.

Of course humans have been bird watching since the beginning of time but it was not until the
Victorian era that a systematic and detailed method of birding arrived.  Darwin's theories of the
species was one, major reason for the enthusiasm.

As birding grew as a Victorian era hobby, groups like The British Ornithology Union and
The Audubon Society started.  Some of their causes included ending wanton hunting of wild birds as well as ending the practice of using rare bird feathers (and birds) to make fashionable ladies' hats.

The Victorians were not as lucky as we are today with modern technology and we enjoyed using small, high-powered binoculars while driving through a few of the newly created wetlands around Northern California. 

You wouldn't think bird watching is terrible interesting. But it is terribly interesting!

What makes that so?  For me, it was the wide variety of beautiful plummage and the harmonious way
birds fly in mass unison through the sky.  There is also something serene and calming in viewing them in the wild.  It's a feeling I never get when I'm staring at an electronic screen.

The holidays have been great and we received many fine gifts from friends and family.  We received an amazing tea set (and Numi teabags) from our creative, foster daughter after mentioning a few months ago that we were no longer drinking coffee. 

According to angelpig.net, "Afternoon tea was created by Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840 as a way to quell the inevitable hunger pangs between lunch and dinner This ritual became so popular among affluent classes that it  became one of the mainstays of the British way of life."

"As the tea tradition expanded from the Victorian elite to the working class,
the High Tea was developed. High Tea was a combination of afternoon tea and the evening supper;
the tradition soon became the main meal for many. The name comes from the fact that the tea was taken at
the high time of day, four to five o’clock and it was enjoyed from high stools in the tea shops or standing; at a corner stall, a buffet table or a counter."

"The tradition of drinking tea in the presence of company is one of the oldest sustenance rituals. "

So in true neo-Victorian fashion, we held our first techno-social-teaparty with our wonderful friend, who lives and works in Germany, via Skype.  The conversation was wonderful and I enjoyed cradling the artfully made cup while sipping the warm tea while the fireplace flickered behind me.  Time slowed down for awhile as we basked in the mixture of old and new rituals. The goals are still the same.  Connection....real connection and the promise of mutually inspiring each other to think of new ways of seeing the world.

I can't help wondering if all the art on the walls (courtesy of my sister) and the re-emergence of this old Victorian house has made us look at the world through the eyes of the Victorians.  It certainly feels healthier and more meaningful to slow things down, breathe in natural wonders and re-stoke the fires of human connection while the rest of the world seems bent on creating a world where all you need is an Ipad.

Spend a weekend birdwatching and having tea with a friend and your world might change overnight.

Happy New Year!