Everything Old is New Again

Renovation Complete – Honoring Sarah’s Architectural Tastes in a Modern Day Fashion

In early January of 2020, the Winchester Mystery House completed an eight-month restoration of one of the oldest rooms in Sarah Winchester’s San Jose mansion. Called the North Dining Room, it’s believed to be the original dining room of the modest farm house that Sarah bought when she moved to San Jose in the mid-1880s, and it forms the nucleus of what eventually became her 160-room “mystery house.”

Abandoned in the middle of a remodeling project back in Sarah’s day, this humble chamber was one of the least attractive rooms in the mansion for more than a century. Once ignored by curious visitors, now phone cameras are clicking as guests jockey for position to get shots of what has become one of the most beautiful—and certainly one of the most modern—rooms in Mrs. Winchester’s amazing home.

Before & After of the 8-month-long North Dining Room restoration project at the Winchester Mystery House.

Solving Just a Few of the Mysteries

Most exciting of all, the room was keeping some secrets that were uncovered along the way. Who really made Sarah’s gorgeous stained-glass windows? How was the room decorated before Sarah’s love affair with Lincrusta Walton wall covering led her to redecorate all the formal rooms in her house? Was the structure of the dining room altered after she bought the house? The answers were forthcoming.

An Early Expansion

After months of planning with the Winchester staff, including House Historian Janan Boehme, Expert Craftsman Cris Mead and his crew of skilled restoration professionals got down to work near the end of April, 2019. Once the remaining plaster was removed and the bare bones of the room revealed, compelling stories began to unfold.

It became clear that Mrs. Winchester had pushed the room’s south wall out by eight-feet during her initial remodel of the old farmhouse, adding about eighty-eight square feet to the room, and creating a strange asymmetry in the positioning of the room’s original fireplace, cabinets, and doors. But since asymmetry was all the rage during the Aesthetic Movement, when Sarah built the house, it made sense.

Hidden Décor

When Cris Mead opened up part of the room’s north wall to discover what was causing the obstruction of one of the old “pocket doors” (sliding doors that are hidden inside the wall when opened up), he found more than he bargained for. When Sarah’s workers had added that wall to create the pocket space, just inside of the original north wall, they inadvertently preserved a narrow strip of the east wall, with all of its original décor, from floor to ceiling. We now know that the original decorations included a three-part printed wallpaper design, with frieze (upper border), field, and dado (lower decorative border) all in autumnal shades of burgundy, orange, deep green, browns and cream colors. Of course, one mystery solved created another: was the original wallpaper installed by Sarah, or was it already there when she bought the house? We’ll probably never know.

The original dado details that were discovered behind a “pocket door”

Rediscovered Gas Jet

When the damaged plaster walls were removed from the closet in the northeast corner of the room, we found a gas line that once fed a wall sconce in the next room: The Guest Reception Hall. This line had been sealed and covered up at some point, but with this new clue, we were inspired to install an electrical box in the same spot, electrify one of Sarah’s old gas fixtures, and install it in the Reception Hall—a lovely addition!

Glass Artists Finally Revealed

The day that the restoration project began, a 125-year-old envelope was discovered that revealed the answer to an age-old mystery. The envelope was discovered hidden behind one of the old niches in the east wall when Cris Mead removed it for alteration. Addressed to S. L. Winchester, and postmarked July 20, 1894, it bore the elaborate logo of the Pacific American Decorative Company of San Francisco. Research showed that this long-forgotten studio, founded by a man named John Mallon, had produced some of the finest stained-glass ever created in America and catered to the wealthiest residents of the West Coast, including, apparently, Sarah Winchester!

The front of the envelope found behind a wall that revealed the studio that created Sarah’s collection of stained-glass windows.

They Don’t Make ‘em Like They Used To!

During the years that Sarah worked on her house, things changed often. Especially after the destruction of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, many rooms were dismantled, and their doors, stained-glass windows, fireplace tiles, and other items were carefully removed to storage. A great deal of lumber—including wooden moldings, corner blocks, corbels (wooden brackets) and other items were salvaged. And quite a bit of lumber ordered by Sarah’s carpenters was never actually used.

To make the restorations as authentic as possible, the restoration team used many original pieces from Mrs. Winchester’s large inventory of artifacts. In some areas, antique pieces from other sources were used. During the project, replicas of wooden moldings or wallpaper patterns were created anew to match Sarah’s design standards. Here are some of the original items that were used to create this beautifully finished room:

  • Two stained-glass side windows and four eyebrow windows from Sarah’s storage were used to create two skylights in the ceiling. (previously used, but original location in the mansion unknown)
  • Four large corbels that once graced the outside of the mansion (used, but original location unknown).
  • Sixteen large American art tiles for the fireplace surround (used, but original location in the mansion unknown).
  • Several types of ornamental wood moldings, used and unused.
  • Redwood salvaged from the dining room closet was used to make the new over mantel (the redwood mantel itself is an antique, but not original to the mansion).
  • Four ornamental wooden finial balls to decorate the ceiling (original location unknown).
  • Original brass chandelier that hung in this room in Sarah’s day. It’s the partner piece to the one in the adjoining South Dining Room.
  • The only original piece of furniture in the mansion—a built-in sideboard, which we believe was removed from this room when Sarah began remodeling it—is now back in what is believed to be its original location.
  • Unused Lincrusta-Walton wall covering from Sarah’s original stock was used to create the dado (lower decorative part of the walls) and some of the ceiling décor.

Don’t Miss It!

Next time you drop by the Winchester Mystery House to visit, be sure to keep an eye out for this newly restored gem. Seen on the daytime Mansion Tours, you’ll find it on the ground floor at the front of the mansion, adjacent to the Front Hall, the Guest Reception Hall, and the South Dining Room. It’s well worth a look!