Two House Museums

On my recent trip to California, I visited two independent museums that I expected to stretch the boundaries of historic house museum-dom (certainly from the normative perspective of the Virginia–Massachusetts view of such things). Both seem to be exceedingly unconventional, as houses and as museums. Despite many important differences, however, I found that they function exactly as any other historic house museum I’ve ever been to, with guided tours through select, highlighted rooms, biographies of their presiding geniuses, and occasional, sidelong glances at the relationship of the building at hand to its broader social context.

Winchester Mystery House signFirst was the Winchester Mystery House, in San Jose. You see billboards for this place for miles around, many with skulls on them to emphasize that it is more about “mystery” than “house.” The point seems to be: here is what a crazy lady with loads of money and time on her hands can do if she’s interested in architecture but not, herself, an architect. According to the museum, it reached its present form in a long building campaign that lasted from 1884 to 1922, when Sarah Winchester, childless widow of rifle manufacturer William Winchester, died. The house is indeed a sprawling, strange place, with 160 rooms, many unfinished, many with unusual connections to the rest of the house because of the accretive way the place evolved. I frequently found myself utterly disoriented, and surprised to be suddenly looking back into a room I had thought was in a completely different part of the house.

2008JEK0504125On tour, we learn that the house was designed by a crazy person and therefore is, ipso facto, strange. This room looks unfinished because it was closed up after the 1906 earthquake (weird!); these stairs wind all around because Mrs. W. was arthritic and couldn’t bear to raise her foot more than an inch or so (quirky!); this room is the ballroom, on which she spent nine times the cost of an average contemporary house (wasteful!). There are occasional explicit gestures to strangeness, such as the seance room, and to mental fragility, as in Mrs. Winchester’s consulting a medium in her understandable distress at having lost both her only child and her husband. Like so much writing on outsider art, however, the relationship between her alleged pathology and the thing it produced is assumed, not explained. The perfect example is the famous staircase to nowhere, which was clearly closed off when a room above was reconfigured (there is wear on the treads up to the ceiling) but it is shown as the offspring of an unstable mind.

2008JEK0504116Despite the compulsiveness that seems to have driven Mrs. Winchester, it must be said that things look, in fact, quite ordinary, at least in the context of houses designed for rich, late-Victorian ladies. The scheme may not be as tightly controlled as it would have been in the hands of Richard Morris Hunt, say, or H.H. Richardson, but the only unconventional thing about the house, really, is its plan, something only perceived in the abstract. The interiors, taken one at a time, could be from any turn-of-the century banker’s house. Is all this just a matter of Mrs. W being a better decorator than she was a planner? (We are reminded, occasionally, on the tour, that the house proceeded without the help of an architect, who, it is pointed out knowingly, would never have suffered such whimsies gladly. I hope the AIA sends them a nice check…) With rooms on top of rooms on top of rooms, Mrs. Winchester was, in any case, a master of indirect and artificial lighting.

2008JEK0511290The second house museum I visited was the Forestiere Gardens, in suburban Fresno. Though there are docents, and literature, and a website, Forestiere has not been professionalized to nearly the same degree as the Winchester House but its caretakers, relatives of the builder, have clearly given much thought to its interpretation. It is, in many ways, Winchester’s inverse. It is underground, for starters. It is the product of a single, poor bachelor, who worked as architect, client, and subcontractor over nearly 40 years. It is also, of course, very similar, in that it is the accretive result of a single-minded individual’s obsession with domestic space, and in that the two projects are very nearly contemporary.

2008JEK0508355The museum tour proceeds through a series of semi-underground rooms, all lit directly or indirectly from above. Only a few of these show signs of having been inhabited, and the living area constitutes only a small fraction of the whole. Other spaces are given to planting, circulation, and religious devotion. Some seem purely ornamental, and many are simply not explained–how could they be? Many of the rooms are domed, and there is certainly a catacombs-like feeling to the entire place. It is cool, mostly underground, and it is very easy to get lost.

2008JEK0508359Mr. Forestiere excavated these rooms out of the very hard clay of Fresno known as “hardpan,” which he also used to build arches, doors, and walls. For the most part, he only went about 8 to 10 feet down but there is at least one room that he excavated one level deeper, a place where he could retreat still further and sit below a small aquarium, through which filtered the only light to this truly subterrannean room (which floods, incidentally, so we couldn’t go down to it).

The interpretive similarities between the two places suggest either the two museums explicitly want comparisons to be made or that their interpretive programs proceed from very similar sets of assumptions. Both websites, for example, include an “Amazing Facts” section. Both places provide similar biographical details whose relevance is only occasionally apparent. Mrs. Winchester consulted a spiritualist for advice on her building campaign; Baldessare Forestiere was a devout Roman Catholic; Winchester felt an affinity for the number 13; Forestiere preferred 3; both were troubled, or inspired, by visions; both continued working on their houses until they died.

Happily, neither museum takes a magisterial approach to their material. Both are highly anecdotal. In a sense, they are anti-museums, in that they discourage contemplative interaction with their artifacts. They bewilder and disorient visitors, though this is not strategic (unlike the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for example), but rather an accident of the artifact. In fact, both try to minimize any understandable disorientation by working to explain everything away: at Forestiere, we are told that the underground gardens make perfect sense because A, it’s cooler below ground (which it is) and B, Mr. Forestiere was an Italian immigrant, who remembered the catacombs of Rome and thought, quite reasonably, that he could reproduce them on his own in California. At Winchester, we learn, simply, that the widowed Mrs. WInchester wanted to keep an eye on her servants and that she was trying to appease the guilt she felt at inheriting a fortune derived from weaponry; and that she had a fascination with the number 13 (see? thirteen coat hooks in this closet! And look, thirteen windows in this room!). Peddling biographies in this way obscures more than it reveals. Why didn’t Forestiere stop, for example? Why didn’t he use any of his family’s money, which seems to have been considerable? How was Mrs. Winchester’s house different from other contemporary, wealthy Californians? Did she design the individually beautiful interiors? What about the gardens?

In this sense, both are absolutely typical of modern museums, where every artifact can be explained away with a few stock phrases, however implausible. Everything is easy, everything makes perfect sense, everything is proceeding according to plan. We may as well be in Fallingwater (see, Wright always wants to bring the outside IN, so there are no columns here to obstruct the view of the forest) or Monticello (notice the dumbwaiter, folks! just another example of the great man’s ingenuity and his love for mechanical labor-saving devices.) Nothing is contingent, or accidental, or conventional. Everything is deliberate, rationalized, and purposeful. Everything fits into a predetermined scheme, whose author is not a culture, or a system, but a determined individual, acting intelligently, and alone.

The scheme, both here and at more famous, professionalized sites, follows from some familiar assumptions about the relationship between buildings and their makers. At Forestiere, Winchester, and so many other house museums, the building and its contents are interpreted as perfect signs of their maker; one thing demonstrating a love of fishing, say, another a commitment to Swedenborgianism. The house, in this understanding, is a material biography, telling us everything we might want to know about an individual if we just know how to read it. This is a very old idea, at least as old as Andrew Jackson Downing, but doesn’t explain nearly as much we might like.

All of us who work in the field of material culture studies have some investment in the notion that objects are evidence for human thought, but this doesn’t mean that all objects tell us everything, or even the most important things (see Computer History Museum). Houses are particularly complex objects, and are the product of multiple interests and forces, only one of which is the will of the owner, or the will of the architect. Maybe it is a particularly American notion to imagine that we can craft our own identities with perfect precision, and that we have complete control over the creation of that most public aspect of identity, the house. This is a popular myth, of course, and a profitable one, but it is powerfully challenged by these two, wonderfully strange, buildings.

One thought on “Two House Museums

  1. I am from San Jose, Ca. where I spent most of my life. I have heard stories all through my life about Mrs. Winchester. My great great grandparents came to San Jose when my grandmother and her siblings where children. My great grandma Reynolds was a Matron with the Police Dept. and knew Mrs. Winchester well. As a child going to the Winchester house was like visiting an old relative. She was a unique lady who was overwhelmed with grief and depression. And today WE have a great place to visit whatever age you are. The Winchester House is one of the many reason to visit San Jose, CA. It will always be home!

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