Combination of Research and Serendipity Solves 90-year Riddle
One of the mysteries that surrounds Sarah Winchester’s beautiful San Jose mansion is the origin of its stunning stained-glass windows. Not that it was a mystery in Sarah’s time. But after her death, the house was sold, and everyone who knew the source of the windows moved away, and then passed away, and the knowledge was lost.
It was often suggested that the amazing collection was made by Tiffany’s of New York, since Sarah—an East coast girl herself—could afford the very best. But there was no proof, and Sarah’s windows didn’t really look anything like Tiffany’s usual style. And so the mystery continued, for over 90 years.
Unlikely Link between the Coal Magnate and the Rifle Heiress
Meanwhile, far to the north, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a similar mystery haunted the caretakers of Craigdarroch Castle, once the home of coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir. The source of the castle’s impressive collection of stained glass was, like Sarah’s, unknown. But there was a single clue: one window, in a unique daisy pattern, was so similar to a set of windows in Sarah Winchester’s house, that it was clear that they were made by the same studio.
When Jim Wolfe, an architectural historian from Canada, was hired to solve the mystery of Craigdarroch’s windows, he started by contacting the Winchester House. Caretakers of both historic homes knew of the link between the windows, but nothing more. Wolfe knew that the two homes were built and decorated at virtually the same time, and that Robert Dunsmuir had had strong business ties to San Francisco (his son, Alexander Dunsmuir, built Oakland’s historic Dunsmiur House). And Sarah’s home was less than 60 miles from the City by the Bay. It seemed like a good place to start.
Ultimately, Wolfe zeroed in on John Mallon and his Pacific Glass Company of San Francisco. Though Mallon’s name had been forgotten over the years, his was once the premier glass studio on the west coast, supplying high-quality art glass to wealthy westerners and winning awards as far afield as Paris. Wolfe’s study of Mallon’s studio and designers—especially Harry Ryle Hopps—convinced him that the Craigdarroch windows had come from Pacific Art Glass. The final proof for Wolfe was that a consignment of goods from Pacific Art Glass arrived in Victoria in 1890, when Craigdarroch was nearing completion. And it was very likely that if the Craigdarroch windows were made by John Mallon’s studio, then some, if not all, of Sarah Winchester’s windows had been made there too.
One Mystery Ends, but Another Begins…
In April of 2019, Wolfe came to the Winchester House to share his findings, and we were convinced that he had solved the riddle. But for us, there was still no proof.
And then, something really strange happened…
The very next day, a skilled pair of experts, working to restore one of the oldest rooms in Sarah’s mansion, found something hidden behind a section of lath-and-plaster wall they had just removed. It was a very dusty, very dirty, but very well-preserved envelope, addressed to Sarah Winchester. Postmarked July 20, 1894, it was decorated with a picture of an elaborate stained-glass window, and the logo of the Pacific American Decorative Company, of San Francisco.
A quick call to Wolfe revealed that Mallon’s Pacific Art Glass became the Pacific American Decorative Company when it was reincorporated in 1893.
The mystery was solved. But we were left with yet another mystery: how could this key piece of evidence, hidden inside a wall for more than a century, suddenly reappear the day after Wolfe’s visit? It was as if Sarah herself finally wanted to tell us, once and for all, where her beautiful windows had come from.
Many things in life defy explanation. The perfectly timed reappearance of the envelope will no doubt remain a mystery. But after all, mystery is our middle name…