Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Building Follies

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Sarah Winchester, the widow of Oliver "Repeating Rifle" Winchester, felt such guilt about the carnage brought about by the gun sold by her husband's company, she used her considerable fortune to ward off the spirits of the dead. She was sure that those killed were out to destroy her family. Told by a medium that the only way to stop them was to confuse them by adding rooms to her mansion, Sarah kept the carpenters' hammers pounding 24 hours a day for the rest of her life, 38 years. The result is a monstrous Victorian accretion of 160 rooms connected by odd stairways, constructed according to bizarre superstitions, such as 13 of everything, including bathrooms with glass doors. There are stairways going nowhere and doors opening in the void and, needless to say, the Winchester House is a big California tourist attraction.

In Mrs. Winchester's time, a vast garden surrounded the construction, but the land was parceled out by the heirs and the view out of her hundreds of windows today is one of suburban sprawl including three huge domes of the Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23 movie theaters. Far from seeming out of place, the excretions of the moderns are very much in keeping with Mrs. Winchester's mania. The mansion is like an overly fertile mother that keeps spawning ugly buildings at a more and more frantic pace. Her true ghostly punishment turned out to be post-mortem. Nonstop tours are conducted through her house, and there is even a small museum featuring the Winchester rifle, which caused her madness in the first place.

After tromping through this exhausting Victorian toy, the baffled tourist might want to regain a sense of the normal proportions of things by having lunch at a nearby eatery on Santana Row. No such luck. Santana Row at Olsen Drive is another out-of-whack architectural fantasy constructed by mad money in what is now Silicon Valley. Instead of being oppressively small and claustrophobic, the structures on Santana Row are oversized. In a gigantic cafe resembling a Roman forum and a fin-de-siecle Viennese palace, one can order a BLT that comes between two enormous pieces of fried sourdough bread trying to contain two huge lettuce leaves, a soft-boiled egg, three long strips of bacon (from a gigantic pig) and several thick tomato slices. It's like a joke sandwich by a pop sculptor. Santana Row is lined with luxury stores, vaguely reminiscent of Via Veneto or Champs-Elysee. Above the stores are majestic condos inhabited (or about to be) by San Jose's chipillionaires. It might look that we are in an Italian village, but no, we are still in the crazed mind of Mrs. Winchester. The only difference is that Mrs. Winchester's project was a private obsession while the oversized mall nearby expresses the madness of a whole culture. Like everything else, architectural obsessions have become democratized.

What the Winchester House and Santana Row definitely share is the wrong idea of the true size of a human being. Humans, for the most part, like things built to the scale of the human body. Things that are either too small, too big or too-too, are designed to discomfit and produce nightmares. An excess of money spent unimaginatively does just that: discomfits and haunts. San Jose's chipillionaires are trapped in Mrs. Winchester's dream like a repeating rifle repeating.

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