The Gardens and Grounds
of Victorian Elegance...
A mansion is not a mansion without its stately grounds, and Mrs. Winchester was just as attentive to the exterior of her estate as she was to the sprawling house. An avid gardener, she imported plants, flowers, trees, shrubs, and herbs from over 110 countries around the world. Some of the original plantings still flourish today – among them, 100-year-old rose bushes, ferns, and feather and fan date palms.
Mrs. Winchester employed eight to ten gardeners. Her head gardener was “Tommy” Nishiwara, who was responsible for seeing that the beautiful gardens, plus the tall hedge around the house, were well maintained. It is said the hedges were once so tall that only the top floor of the house was visible from the road!
Mrs. Winchester loved to spend time in her gardens, and she had gazebos built where she could sit and enjoy her trees and flowers. After her death in 1922, the grounds were opened to the public as Winchester Park, where Santa Clara Valley residents came to have parties and picnics.
Over the years, time took its toll on the gardens, but they were brought to life again when the restoration of the estate began in 1973. Nearly 12,000 box wood hedges were planted along the pathways that wind through the gardens. In addition, all the lawns were replanted, and some 1,500 major plants, shrubs, and trees were replaced. Today the home and its gardens are once again the showplace of the Santa Clara Valley, a reminder of the area’s gracious past.
Today, visitors can wander on the original garden paths designed by Mrs. Winchester for viewing the extensive plantings, fountains and outlying buildings.
The Victorian Gardens
In some ways, the design of the gardens is typically Victorian, with geometric designs and neatly trimmed shrubs. The emphasis is placed on the front yard, with many exotic plants and bright flowers such as roses and bulbs.
Though Mrs. Winchester had her own ideas, she often referred to a book of horticulture published in 1841 by A.J. Downing, which was still popular at the turn of the century.
Like most Victorian gardens, Mrs. Winchester’s grounds included plants with medicinal uses. For example, persimmons were supposedly a cure for intestinal disorders. The fruit of the sourberry bush was said to purify the blood, and peonies were thought to cure headaches. Even rose plants could be made into an eye lotion for medicinal purposes.
The trees on the property are from all over the world – European black locust, English yew and English walnut, Peruvian pepper, Spanish and Norfolk pines, and more. The unique collection includes a towering monkey puzzle tree, as well as persimmons, grapefruits, oranges, catalpas, lemons, bayleafs, and pink flower crepe myrtle. Some of these, like the English yew by the corner of the garage, and the large elm tree near the back of the house, are original plantings.
Flowers abound throughout the grounds, including Mrs. Winchester’s favorite, the daisy. There are also abundant beds of star jasmine and pink Indian hawthorne.
During Mrs. Winchester’s lifetime, the Greenhouse was used to cultivate and nurture flowers which, when ready, were brought into the mansion for display. Later, they would be returned to the Greenhouse and tended to again. In this way, the lushness of the living space was constantly replenished.
Fountains and Statuary
Four fountains add a soothing touch to the cultivated grounds in the front of the house. They include the Egret Fountain, the Cupid Fountain, the Cherub Fountain, and the Serpent Fountain.
One of the best known statues here is that of Chief Little Fawn, a Native American who died defending his homeland. It is said that Mrs. Winchester erected this statue to placate the spirits of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who were killed by the Winchester repeating rifles. The chief, with his bow and arrow, is gazing towards a statuary deer in the midstride across the lawn.
Other statues represent figures from Greek mythology. One of these, located by the Serpent Fountain, is the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter.
Mrs. Winchester transformed her 161-acre estate into a working farm. The orchards produced bountiful crops of plums, apricots, and walnuts. She kept about ten field hands busy all year long and hired an additional ten to fifteen men at harvest time.
After being picked and boxed in the field, the fruit was dried in Mrs. Winchester’s special dehydrator, which had a large coal furnace and could dry half a ton of fruit in thirty hours. Most of this fruit was sold at market to supplement Mrs. Winchester’s income. Her orchards were listed in the early San Jose City directories for fruit growers.
Mrs. Winchester’s estate was a little town within itself. She had everything she needed: plumber’s shops, her own water and electrical supplies, and complete sewer and drainage systems.
Until the 1930's, the thirty-five-foot water tower on the grounds supported a 10,000 gallon storage tank – the main water supply for the estate. The elaborate water drainage system is still in use today. Miles of drainpipe run through the house into several collection basins. Then the water is carried to several cisterns around the house.
In the past, gas pumps fueled an electric generator which produced electricity for lighting, several pumps, and the Otis electric elevator. In the days before electricity, Mrs. Winchester even had her own gas manufacturing plant. It produced carbide gas by adding a small amount of water to a drum containing calcium carbide. The resulting gas was pressed through the gas lines to the house by a large piston and cylinder. The gas lights in the house were then lit by electromechanical strikers that created a spark to light each lamp.
Mrs. Winchester’s Cars
With the advent of the automobile, Mrs. Winchester spent an extravagant $8,400 for a 1909 French Renault with a battery-operated starter – quite a luxury back then. When mechanical problems became an annoyance, she called in Fred Larson, a mechanic from San Francisco. After he fixed the car, she offered him a high salary to work just for her, but he declined. Mrs. Winchester persisted by finally asking him to name his price. To his surprise, she instantly accepted his seemingly outrageous request.
Fred Larson remained with Mrs. Winchester until she died. His duties included the maintenance of two more vehicles Mrs. Winchester acquired, a 1917 Pierce Arrow limousine, black and grey with lavender pin stripes, and a Buick truck for inspecting the estate.
The estate’s garage is now used as a storeroom for leftover building materials – trimwork, moldings, windows, turned posts and spirals, and more. Adjacent to the garage is the carwash, which had two ingenious adaptations for the time. Not only was the water heated, but the hose was attached to a 360 degree rotating pipe in the ceiling, in order to spray all parts of the car.
Mysteries on the Grounds
The grounds have their share of unexplained mysteries. Even the name Mrs. Winchester gave her estate, Llanada Villa, is a mystery. The words are Spanish for “house on flat land,” but no one knows what special meaning they had for Mrs. Winchester.
The number 13 occurs often on the grounds as well as in the house; for example, there are 13 cupolas in the greenhouse and 13 fan palms lining the front driveway.
The design on the estate’s wrought iron gates was thought to have a spiritualistic meaning for Mrs. Winchester – but we can only guess what that might have been. And then, in the inner courtyard, there is a crescent-shaped hedge that points toward Mrs. Winchesters bedroom – the one where she died. Coincidence? Maybe….but again, we’ll never know for sure.