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My Mrs. Winchester gene

Six months after my family moved into the first brand-new house my parents ever bought, Mom started directing my father to remove or move walls and change various other things. This was a perfectly ordinary three-bedroom tract house in a blue-collar neighborhood. It was laid out in a fairly obvious way. There was not much you could do with it. But for the next 20 years my mother conducted a ceaseless rebuilding campaign.

She joked that she was born with the Mrs. Winchester gene. I believed it. And early on it was clear I’d inherited it.

Other women move furniture, forever seeking a cozier nest. I’m perfectly content for my furniture to stay put. I want to move the walls and ceilings around it.

No, this is not my house. This is a portion of the interior of the Winchester Mystery House, a colossal (and colossally weird) mansion.
But I have been known to improvise a window in the interior of my house.

For most of my life circumstances have kept me from fully exercising my Mrs. Winchester nature. But my last three houses (one a cabin shell I had to finish, two old beaters in need of help) have kept me almost constantly in a state of construction. And the present place … well, old-lady Sara would feel right at home.

My $10,000 (and counting) house — aka Ye Olde Wreck, aka Dripping Cedars, eventually tbka Mo Saoirse (My Freedom) — is either allowing me to fulfill my Winchester destiny or providing curative gene therapy. I’m not sure. All I know is that when I’m done with this house, I’m done. I ain’t doin’ this again, never nohow. I am staying put here until they haul me out feet first. I am never moving on to another “just needs a little something” abode. I am never ripping down another rotted addition. I am never dragging another slab of drywall into place. I am never sweeping up the grainy, grimy leftovers of a plumbing or electrical job. I am never looking around and thinking, “You know, it could be really cool if that wall over there had a 30-degree angle on it” or “Hey, wouldn’t a skylight be just the thing for that room?”

Oh, I’ll think it. But do it??? Never, no way, nohow.


Of course when you buy a foreclosed, leaking, abandoned olde wreck you expect fixing. From foundation to roof, there’s inevitably a lot that must be done and that’s that, Winchester gene aside. The fact that this house was also all kinds of ridiculous (e.g. some former owner having abandoned the bathroom to mice and spiders, then cutting into a bedroom to build a second bath, then extending that bedroom via a shoddily built lump of an addition) made for that much more work. And rot. Never forget all the rot repair (now blessedly DONE after four years).

But as with Sarah’s Mystery House, Ye Olde Wreck has also been in a state of constant improvisation. Ceiling collapses? Oopsie. But opportunity! Change it from a flat ceiling to slightly vaulted. Back end of the house turns out too rotted to jack up? Arrgh. But opportunity! Rip five feet off the bedroom and turn the space into a screen porch. End up with an odd bit of space because some original plan for it didn’t work out? Improvise! Be creative! Think of something!

Can you make lemonade out of rotted lemons?

This weekend as I insulate a couple of naked walls, move an electrical outlet, shim a floor, and tear down the last remaining (and so hated) fiberboard ceiling tiles in preparation for The Return of the Wandering Monk, I’m really, really beginning to identify with old Sarah, who built her mansion without plan or any great amount of common sense. The final — really final — structural/design decisions are here. They simply involve closets. Closets. Those are easy, aren’t they? And these aren’t even big closets. But because the future closets exist in space left over from and affected by other improvisational decisions, they now present both opportunity! and mental convolutions that feel as deranged as poor Sarah trying to appease the spirits that haunted her.

I know I can make everything work. I’ll end up with a nice little house. Even if it has its oddities, they’ll be charming, creative oddities, not Sarah Winchester oddities.

I remind myself to breathe deep and tell myself it’ll all turn out charming.
… even though old Sarah and I both have doorways to nowhere.

But oy. Never, ever again. No way. Should you suspect I’m even tempted to do this one more time, call the nice men in the white coats. You’ll be doing me a big favor.

Also Mrs. Winchester. Not me. Yet.


  1. Rose Kelley
    Rose Kelley July 16, 2017 9:55 am

    I visited the Winchester house. Very interesting. And your home looks beautiful in that picture

  2. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2017 11:15 am

    Thank you, Rose. The house is definitely getting there — even with a few “doors to nowhere” still on it.

    I grew up a few miles from the Winchester Mystery House, but visited only once, when I was six. It was a dismal place then. Empty and basically gutted to the walls. The tours were the very definition of tacky, too. It’s good to see that so much has been restored and improved since that day. But for the rest of the time my family lived in the vicinity, not one of us ever visited or recommended the place to out-of-town guests, so bad were our impressions of it. (I certainly do remember those bizarre staircases and doors, though — as well as the story of how long it took to find Sarah Winchester in one of her bedrooms after the 1906 earthquake.)

  3. Laird
    Laird July 16, 2017 11:49 am

    “I am never sweeping up the grainy, grimy leftovers of a plumbing or electrical job.”

    That’s a resolution which might be difficult to keep. But good luck with the rest of them!

  4. Pat
    Pat July 16, 2017 12:34 pm

    Any old armoires hanging around at yard sales? They make good storage in odd corners, and save having to build closets. They also can be custom-fitted for various items – food storage here, defense equipment there, etc. – and storage benches and baskets can be used in odd places.

  5. jed
    jed July 16, 2017 12:40 pm

    I’d like to visit Winchester House some day. It must’ve been quite the adventure to have been employed by her in its construction.

    I engaged in remodeling both houses I owned. The 1st one definitely needed it, though it wasn’t rotting out from under me. The 2nd one was mostly just fine, but did need some TLC and upgrades, and I’ll never understand putting the range right next to the refrigerator.

    I’d be perfectly fine buying a truly decrepit fixer-upper. I don’t recommend trying to live in one while working on it, though. At least, that didn’t work all that well for me.

    But your house, really, is looking very nice indeed.

  6. Joel
    Joel July 16, 2017 12:43 pm

    I can’t imagine having the balls to tackle a structural rebuild job on a building that big and that far gone. But every time I see a picture of the current public exterior I think “Her neighbors must *love* her.”

    You really truly and literally have done wonders with that awful place. Enjoy seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, in full knowledge that it probably isn’t you-know-what.

  7. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2017 6:11 pm

    Pat — ever since moving into a house that had no closets (this house, as of four years ago) I’ve been scrounging storage furniture — including one junktique wicker dresser AND one glorious 1930s-vintage armoire that a friend gave me. (Gave me!) So good idea you had there. I’ve also built two closets and will now be creating two more. The problem is now how to design those two so they do what I need them to do, both as storage and as space divider-uppers.

    jed — If I’d have realized you were such an old remodeling hand, I might have recruited you to help. 😉 Or at least picked your brain more often. Yeah, it’s a drag living in a long-term construction zone. Until recently I’ve coped by always trying to keep one part of the house livable and clear of rubble. That’s not working now that we’re deconstructing and reconstructing the back of the house and all the spare doors and such are moving into the living room. 🙁

    Joel — Last time I checked … no balls. But yes, I do believe the neighbors are happy (except when the Monk and I are making monumental amounts of noise). The neighbor who works at the local lumberyard is probably overjoyed. But you’re right; it was an awful place. Literally a scary place. So thanks for celebrating the progress.

  8. jordanms2015
    jordanms2015 July 17, 2017 8:44 am

    You know I always thought you had a “interesting” vib – now I Know what it is

  9. Claire
    Claire July 17, 2017 9:18 am

    “You know I always thought you had a “interesting” vib – now I Know what it is”

    Thank you. Erm … maybe. No, on second thought, definitely not thanking you. LOL.

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