Category Archives: famous houses

Haunted California Coast

I was totally going to skip the classic haunted house post for a lighthearted write-up on cute little early 20th Century beach houses. But with a dark and stormy afternoon at Half Moon Bay fogging up the lens of my point-and-shoot faster than I could wipe it clean, our recent weekend getaway – and my post plans – turned out to be a wash, no pun intended.

Exploring the famously pumpkin-happy beach towns just south of San Francisco was a treat despite the weather, but at times I couldn’t help wishing we’d just made a detour to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose instead.

 As luck would have it, we stumbled upon another historic haunted building – the Moss Beach Distillery.

Photos from MossBeachDistillery.com

I don’t know about you, but when I think of speakeasies, my mind turns to Chicago and New York. But apparently one of the most successful of the illegal ventures was located right here, perched on the bank of a particularly rough piece of coastline best known for the annual big wave surf contest Mavericks.

 

Rum runners would lug booze up the steep cliffs and into vehicles headed for San Francisco speakeasies, all under the cover of fog and darkness. Of course, some of the liquor seemed to always end up in the basement of the little stucco building, then known as “Frank’s Place,” where owner Frank Torres mingled with silent film stars and Bay Area politicians. And thanks to his high-up connections, “Frank’s Place” was never raided.

 But not everybody had a good time. According to legend, one of the patrons was a young, married mother carrying on an affair with the bar’s piano player. On one of her many trips to and from the restaurant, she was killed in a car crash. Members of the restaurant staff claim to have seen the woman’s ghost, always dressed in blue, searching the restaurant for her lover. Occasionally, they report unexplained phenomena, like altered dates in the computer system, earrings that go missing from female customers and levitating checkbooks. The Blue Lady has even been featured Unsolved Mysteries – in fact, I remember seeing the episode at my grandparents’ house, where my brother and I always crammed in as many episodes of UM as we could (for some reason, our parents  just weren’t fans of the seedy storylines and cheesy reenactments).

We didn’t have an opportunity to eat in the restaurant. But I have dined at another supposedly haunted eatery – and stayed in the place’s haunted hotel.

The quirkily constructed chalet-style Brookdale Inn in the Santa Cruz Mountains is as famous for the creek that runs right through the restaurant as it is for the child ghosts said to haunt the premises (apparently they drowned in the stream).

Photos from Brookdale Inn & Spa

I don’t even believe in ghosts, and being left alone in one of the creaky, semi-rundown rooms in the 1890s building for five minutes gave me the creeps.Then again, everything in the overgrown redwoods surrounding Santa Cruz can feel a bit cobwebby and creepy.

And of course, there’s the granddaddy of all California haunted houses – the infamous Winchester Mystery House.

Photos from WinchesterMysteryHouse.com photo gallery

You might already know the story. Sarah Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, visits a psychic after the death of her husband in the early 1880s. The medium convinces her that the Winchester family is cursed because of the lives taken by her husband’s rifles. Somehow, Sarah gets it in her head that she needs to move west and build a house to honor the spirits – and to appease them, she must never stop building.

Over the next 38 years, she uses her multi-million dollar inheritance to fabricate a sprawling, fantastical Victorian mansion with 160 rooms and seven stories (though the highest buildings were reduced to a measly four stories after the 1906 earthquake).

 

But this wasn’t an ordinary large house. Remember, she had to keep building, even if her blueprints didn’t exactly make sense. That meant adding 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 10,000 window panes, two basements and three elevators.

It meant installing staircases that led to the ceiling

putting in doors that opened not to decks, but to multi-story drops

and using patterns that contained eery details and her lucky number, 13, whenever possible (this is the window in the 13th bathroom).

There was also the much talked about tiny upstairs Séance room, though some say her belief in the paranormal has been embellished – and it was relatively common for Victorian era society to hold séances and consult psychics.

In the end, continued construction couldn’t prevent the inevitable – Sarah Winchester died in 1922, after which time the behemoth residence finally came to rest.

Whether or not you believe in ghost stories, the Winchester Mystery House is one of the best examples of Queen Anne architecture on the West Coast. I’ve been on the tour twice, and I’m still itching to go back – maybe someday I’ll make one of the All Hallows’ Eve flashlight tours.

So that’s my haunted house/restaurant/hotel roundup. Hope everyone has a scary good Halloween!

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Humboldt Gingerbread

If there’s a dream job for an old house lover, it’s got to be running a bed-and-breakfast like the Gingerbread Mansion, a famously ornate Victorian home in Ferndale, Calif.

As it turns out, the position might be available. We noticed the inn was closed during our annual visit, and locals confirmed that the mansion is now bank-owned – and could soon be up for sale (for around 900K, we were told).

Personally I don’t know that I’d make a good inn owner since I’m not the best at making small talk with strangers. But it might be worth a shot to live in a place like this.

The Victorian Inn down the street – our usual lodging – isn’t too shabby, either.

Photo by tmvogel/Flickr

Of course, even the Gingerbread’s gingerbread looks like store-bought cookies compared to the ornamentation on another local stunner, the Carson Mansion.

Possibly the most outrageous Victorian building in California – well, except for the storied Winchester Mystery House – lumber baron William Carson’s green-shingled castle is a NorCal coast landmark.

Just across the street, Carson had a humble little abode built for his son as a wedding gift. Today it’s known as the Pink Lady.

Ferndale (pictured below) has been called the best preserved Victorian village in California by the Los Angeles Times, and This Old House voted Eureka one of the Best Places to Buy a Queen Anne in the U.S.

I’m not sure why Humboldt County has done such an unusually amazing job preserving its historic architecture. Maybe they didn’t have the economic means to bulldoze and rebuild with the rest of the state, considering Eureka’s median income is roughly half the California average. Maybe the arts and culture-focused residents saw the unique beauty in their whimsical old buildings when everyone else valued sleek, modern and new. Maybe there’s just something magical about the fog-shrouded communities bordering redwood forests, Humboldt Bay and the mysterious Lost Coast, an area of the Golden State that is – remarkably– still untouched.

Whatever the reason, the result is a trip back in time.

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Living Large

I admit it – I’m guilty of grass is greener syndrome. In my little suburban apartment, I thought all I needed to be happy was an old house and closet space.

Now that I’m in my 1942 one-story with three (tiny) closets, and I find myself dreaming of an even older two-story with a guest bedroom and more than bathroom – and more closet space.

But in reality, I don’t really need those things. I’m simply intrigued by what I don’t have – give me a Craftsman and I’ll dream about living out the rest of my days in a Queen Anne, a Queen Anne and I’ll dream about life in a Craftsman.  

I think to some extent, everyone feels that way – everyone except the one-time residents of the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C.

What more could you possibly want when you have 25,000 square feet of living space and an 8,000-acre backyard?

With 250 rooms and four acres under one roof – not to mention the treasure trove of European antiques and art inside – the Biltmore is the largest privately-owned home in the U.S. and truly a study in opulence. In a time when most folks hadn’t heard of indoor plumbing, the late 19th Century chateau of George and Edith Vanderbilt had 43 bathrooms.

 

Photography isn’t allowed inside, but you can check out a slideshow of interior pictures on the Biltmore website.

Suffice to say, it makes the historic Grove Park Inn, which we also toured in Asheville, look like a modest shack (albeit a shack with a killer view).

FYI, if you ever make it out to the Biltmore, try to figure out how much time you’ll spend there – then triple it. Between the museum of a house, the gardens designed by renowned landscape artist (and Central Park designer) Frederick Law Olmsted, the stable house turned shopping center, restaurant and ice cream parlor, we were there for over four hours.

Funny thing, though – as much as I enjoyed winding up and down the many spiral staircases, and around the many garden pathways, all I could think about was how much I appreciated the simplicity of my ordinary cottage.

The truth is, I like my 960-square-foot house. I’m lucky I have what I do – if you’ve ever been fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to tour an Ikea, you’ll see neatly organized living spaces in 500 square feet or less – I’ve got no excuses.

Sure, less space means freedom. But it also means less cleaning, organizing and decorating – and, in a way, requires more creativity. Besides, I like to do actual living in my living room – kind of hard to accomplish when you’ve got like 30 of them.

I could use some of that closet space, though.

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Old Stone Crazy

If people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, can people in stone houses throw whatever they want?  

 

I don’t think I’ll be finding out anytime soon. An old stone or brick cottage is like my holy grail of houses. While I’d love to settle down in a little mini-castle of my own, it’s pretty hard to find the real thing – at least here in the United States.  

 But if the definition of a dream home is absolute unavailability, then mine is not the beauty I discussed last week, but this one.  

  

Not because it’s out of my price range or location, but because it isn’t really a home – at least not anymore. It’s the property of Empire Mine State Historic Park – the country castle-type manor of the owners of California’s oldest and richest gold mine.  

I adore this house, from its leaded glass windows to its rose gardens and water features to its herringbone-patterned brick patios.

Image via NevadaCounty.com

 

Try to imagine this walkway as it appears every spring, tangled in climbing roses – or accented by the red blaze of Virginia Creeper in fall. I guess I’ll have to visit again so I can take more pictures to post (especially pics of the mining area – the view down the old mine shaft is scary-cool).

 

 

 As if Empire Mine isn’t romantic enough on its own, this lovely park happens to be where I had my first real date with the boyfriend eight years ago in June….ah, memories.  

 But enough with the reminiscing. I saw a glimmer of hope for my stone house future when I cracked open the latest issue of Cottages and Bungalows and flipped right to an ad for Storybook Homes, a company that designs little to large fairy tale-friendly cottages and castles.  

Image via Storybook Homes

Image via Cotswold Village

 It’s a cute concept – but alas, I’m still not sure if I could ever do the new old house thing, even if said house was meticulously designed to look and feel aged, even if it was designed to look like my dream house.  

After all, what is it that makes an old house special? Is it in the details – the nooks and crannies, the built-ins, the quirks – all of which can be recreated? Or is it in time itself – the creaky floors and crumbling bricks, the multiple renovations and the echoes of past lives that once called it home?

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