If you’ve been on a tour of the Winchester Mystery House, you’ve probably been told that some of its thousands of glass window panes were carefully crafted by Tiffany. You may have even stood in the room full of stained glass — one of the highlights of the house — and been encouraged to gaze closer at the famed creations.
But this, like many parts of the folklore-filled mansion in San Jose, was a guess being passed off as fact — and not a very good guess at that.
“I know what Tiffany windows look like and they just don’t look like that,” house historian Janan Boehme said. “Tiffany did a lot pictorial windows. They used a lot of opalescent glass. They did not use a lot of beveled glass.”
For decades, they’ve tried to figure out who really custom-made the stained glass windows for Sarah Winchester. They’re unusual: pastel-colored, asymmetrical and sharply beveled to cast a sparkling light.
“Whoever made them and put them together was very clearly at the top of their trade,” said Boehm.
A dogged architectural historian and an envelope, found hidden in the walls, may have finally solved the puzzle.
The enigma began unraveling 900 miles north.
One of the gems of British Columbia is Craigdarroch Castle, the opulent home of 19th-century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir (if his name sounds familiar, there’s more on that in a moment). Craigdarroch Castle also boasts beautiful stained glass windows, and caretakers long ago realized they bore a striking resemblance to the ones at the Winchester home. Whoever discovered their windows’ provenance would almost certainly have done the work for both.
Recently, Craigdarroch asked architectural historian Jim Wolf to do some research on the windows. He had a hunch they came from California. Dunsmuir’s son Alexander had moved to San Francisco to run a branch of the family business in 1878. Alexander also built the white-columned home today known as the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate in Oakland.
So Wolf began searching for prominent glass artists in San Francisco. He soon zeroed in on John Mallon.
Mallon was no ordinary craftsman; although largely forgotten today, he was considered one of America’s greatest glass artists of the late 1800s. Mallon, who learned his craft in New York, went west in 1858 chasing after a gold rush in British Columbia. Unfortunately for Mallon, the rush had already gone bust by the time he arrived in San Francisco.
“Too embarrassed to return, and too proud to admit his foolishness, Mallon decided to remain in the city to find work in the glass trade,” Wolf wrote in an article for “The Magazine of the Victorian Society in America.”
It was a good career move. Mallon became the go-to craftsman for wealthy Californians. His Pacific glass company made windows for the Mark Hopkins mansion on Nob Hill, the Carson Mansion in Eureka and Villa Montezuma in San Diego.
And, Wolf argues, the stained glass in both Craigdarroch Castle and the Winchester Mystery House.
Armed with evidence, Wolf came to San Jose in April to present his findings to the house historians.
“I’ve never seen any other windows like them,” Boehme said. “I was convinced.”
The next morning, restoration work started up in one of the dining rooms. As workers carefully removed part of the wall, they saw something tucked inside.
It was an envelope, beautifully preserved, untouched since the day over 100 years ago it likely slipped through the floorboards above. Stamped across the front was the elaborate seal of the Pacific American Decorative Company, complete with the memorial church windows they created for the Stanfords after the death of their son, Leland Jr.
Boehm immediately got on the phone with Wolf.
“That’s them!” he exclaimed.
The timing felt too good to be true, but Boehm knew no one could come or go from the blocked-off renovation space without the staff’s approval. And, after all, strange coincidences seem to cluster around the house.
“I don’t think we’ve ever found anything hidden like this before that was Sarah’s,” Boehm said. “Not that I know of. Usually when we do restoration projects we don’t normally dismantle things. This was really luck.”
The envelope is noteworthy for another reason. On the back is scribbled a little note, almost certainly in Sarah Winchester’s hand. It says “Warren $18.” No one’s sure what it refers to yet, perhaps a bill owed to one of the many local laborers she employed.
The envelope — and the mystery it helped solve — has been the secret of the staff and a few historians for the last five months. But now, they’re looking forward to sharing the news and perhaps setting up an exhibit for the public.