Rich and Crazy

Oh to have unlimited funds and unlimited opinions.

Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I went to see both the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, and the Hearst Castle at San Simeon. The Winchester House was built by the daughter-in-law of the creator of the Winchester rifle. The story goes that after a year of particular strife, she was told by a spiritualist that she needed to appease the spirits of all those killed by the rifle. She was told to start building a house – and to never finish. Carpenters worked non-stop for over two decades.

Main House

The Winchester Mystery House belongs next to the Oregon Vortex in terms of things I saw over and over again on the Travel Channel growing up. Visitors can see the house by tour only, which after seeing it makes a lot of sense. An ordinary person would be lost within minutes. The house is absolutely insane. Supposedly Mrs. Winchester would commune with the spirits each night in her seance room (a room with one entrance and three exits), and they would give her the instructions for the next day’s work. The house has a million different levels, staircases for no reason that go nowhere, and more doors in and out of rooms than I ever imagined. Some just open to brick walls.

The most striking thing is the size of the rooms. Everything is small, as was Mrs. Winchester. The biggest room I saw was about the size of your average Starbucks. Most were small enough that three people would make it too crowded. She had gorgeous, expensive, Tiffany windows positioned to never have sunlight show through, and all the columns are installed upside down.

Front Gate in the FogIn contrast, Hearst Castle was built by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul who had a lot of money and knew exactly what he wanted. The large, ornate mansion sits in the middle of nowhere on the California coast. Hearst had a penchant for Gothic art, which makes a person feel displaced in time when standing in the castle. It’s easy to question if what you’re looking at was built in the 1920’s or the 1490’s. There are 12th century choir benches from Italy lining the room as “wallpaper,” and ancient Egyptian statues used as paperweights. Hearst Castle is a museum meant for Gatsby parties.

Choir StallsMy favorite thing however, was the ride up to Hearst Castle. All guests must park at the Visitor’s Center and be bused up for their guided tour. The bus ride is rather long, winding up the hill into the California fog. To keep guests entertained, there is a narration from Alex Trebek playing the entire trip. Mr. Trebek reminds you of the rules, and then regales the group with stories and explanations about the location and the long ride up. What’s funny is that because the narration is pre-recorded, he will sometimes mention things that aren’t there. “And to your right you’ll see the spectacular view that Hearst enjoyed so much,” but when you look, all you see is fog. “To the left you might be able to catch a glimpse of the wild Zebras that descended from the original Hearst Zoo…” No zebras. I couldn’t help but think of that first jeep tour in Jurassic Park: You go through a set of giant gates and a famous voice tells you to look out the window at nothing. Whadda they got in there, King Kong?

StairsWalking through these two testaments to unbridled spending, I couldn’t help but want an extravagant home of my own. This is strange for me, because recently my aesthetic has leaned more and more towards the small and simple. Knowing both homes were built from scratch, I can’t help but feel like I don’t have enough opinions for such a place. Which Greek God should be the centerpiece for the indoor pool fountain? What 13th century ceiling should be used for the library? How many libraries should there be, anyway? Four?

I should start looking for an architect now.

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