Last month, my attention was brought to Winchester Mystery House’s new centennial speaker series featuring Jim Wolf, an architectural historian with a special interest in stained-glass art works of Victorian homes. It is no secret that one of my favorite things about the Winchester Mystery House are its cobweb windows. So a ticket purchase was inevitable. This event’s description reminded me of the vibes for the Dacre Stoker 125 years of Dracula lecture. My expections were to experience a similar presentation format.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this experience went above and beyond. I entered the carriage house where staff checked me in and hand stamped me with an adorable cobweb. The front of the room was adorned with doors and windowpanes full of stained-glass from Winchester’s storage houses. Each flanking both sides of the podium and presentation screen. With this gorgeous backdrop and all attendees accounted for, Jim Wolf was introduced and began his lecture.
Part One: A Twin Art Glass Mystery
The first part of Mr. Wolf’s symposion was about his journey to Winchester, starting at Craigdarroch Castle of British Columbia. He had been working with the care-takers of Craigdarroch to uncover the mystery of their stained glass suppliers. Speculations that Craigdarroch glass came from Tiffany’s echoed Winchester’s own stories. However, evidence was lacking.
“Give me JUST the facts.” was his mantra throughout his research. As an architectural historian, one of Mr. Wolf’s biggest challenges is finding factual evidence. A challenge often encountered with these old Victorian homes full of stories, but poor documentation. Coincidently, trips by Winchester House historian, Janan Boehme to Craigdarroch and Mr. Wolf to Winchester set the cogs into motion. On their respective trips, each noticed a daisy decorated stained-glass window in each house looking almost exactly the same. Both inquiring with the caretakers if they knew anything about the art glass’s origins. Can you say “Serendipity”?
Mr. Wolf went into details about the importance of design matching and how he was finding that between Craigdarroch and Winchester Mystery House. Art glass design theft and copying was virtually unheard of at the time which meant that coming across a “fake” was very unlikely. In addition, designs discovered in “high-class” commissions made the link to a particular studio more certain. Again, places like Craigdarroch and Winchester. See where this is going?
But was it the Pacific American Decorative company, Jim Wolf?
Mr. Wolf shared comparisons between the two homes, both in historical facts and the unknowns. He then proceeded to share window comparisons between them, and it was hard to deny the similarities! If I hadn’t been told, I would believe the examples came from the same place. On Mr. Wolf’s trip, he began to identify the aformentioned design markers throughout Winchester Mystery House and other Victorian homes found throughout the Bay Area that he had been studying at Craigdarroch. This lead him to dig into Glass firms operating in SF during the time that Craigdarroch and Winchester overlapped.
After thorough research was finalized, he contacted the Winchester staff to present his findings in 2019. And then, a literal day after Mr. Wolf left Winchester to return home, interesting news arrived. An envelope from “Pacific American Decorative Company” was discovered within a room undergoing renovations!
Part Two: Pacific Art Glass
Part Two covered the astounding history of the Pacific Art Glass Works and the demand for art glass in the 1800s. John Mallon and his journey to San Francisco to establish the Pacific Art Glass Works firm was the focus. Mr. Wolf elaborated on to how celebrated and revered this glass firm was throughout the West Coast, bringing up the interesting point how the East Coast is more celebrated when it comes to architecture and history. Which meant that the West Coast is often pushed aside when it is just as rich. It was here that I had this stirring pride of being raised on the West Coast in the California Bay Area.
After gushing over the Pacific Art Glass Works history, Mr. Wolf moved on to the designers employed by the firm. And, in turn, which of these artists most likely had a hand in the window design for Sarah’s glass. Enter H.R. Hopps and the amazing documentation of his graphic design career.
Part Three: Architecture and Art Glass of the Winchester House
This was quite possibly my favorite portion of this segment. The samples that Mr. Wolf presented on H.R. Hopps’ signature graphic designs in comparison to the assorted stained-glass designs was pure inspiration. Especially for an amateur graphic designer like myself.
How did Mr. Wolf make the design matches to confirm these windows were the work of the Pacific American Decorative Company and H. R. Hopps? He mentioned the following as important signature marks for the glass construction; complex design & craftmanship, abstract design, crystal glass containing bevels and zipper cuts, use of bohemian jewels (aka uranium glass). Hopps graphic designs echoed his glass designs with flowers centered with three jewels, ropes and knots, playful scrolls and “quilted” patterning.
Another cool fact was how the glasses were sets separated by renovations; that each room was themed with the glass already in mind, not added as an afterthought. For example, the room with the door to nowhere, all the glass matches and was made for that particular space. The door on display as our presentation backdrop (that I’m posing with) happened to one of several pocket doors intended for that room! A pair of thin cobweb windows happened to measure a perfect fit to a pair of empty spaces on either side of a fireplace. Sarah’s original bedroom contained all the windows with daisy flower accents.
The only windows Mr. Wolf couldn’t make claim to being from John Mallon’s firm were the clear beveled windows. You know those plain cobweb windows I love so much? Their origins asre still a mystery!
In conclusion, Mr. Wolf took a moment to reflect on Sarah’s contribution and actions with the house. The original purchase of Llanda Villa was always intended to be a renovation project and he expressed the desire to someday lay eyes on the blueprints of Winchester. Jokingly, he asked Sarah where they might be at that conclusion. He took the time to discuss how poorly the press treated her because she was doing her own thing not considered the norm of the time. Once again, solidifying her an inspiration and role model for myself.
Q & A with Jim Wolf
Naturally, in a room full of engaged people, great questions are asked. Some that I could remember included finding homes within California containing Pacific American Decorative Company glass. Of which, Mr. Wolf listed the following: the Bloomer (spelling?) House and Ohloff House in San Francisco, Carson Mansion in Eureka and Villa Montezuma in San Diego.
I asked two questions. One question crushed my dreams because it was about the potential of modern glass art companies making windows like those found in Winchester. A gal who dreams of stained-glass windows couldn’t resist asking! “No” was the answer. Glass production has completely changed since the 1800s and finding glass to be cut like it is in Winchester would be nearly impossible. In addition, many of the art glass skills captured in the glass have been lost.
My other question was “Where would you guess the infamous cobweb window would be placed in Winchester?”. He said he couldn’t even begin to suppose. An extremely anticipated answer from someone who constantly rang the bell of “Just the facts” and “context is everything”. A response I greatly respected.
The Centennial Speaker Series with Jim Wolf Goes on the move
The event was advertised to be held in the carriage house. However, Janan took to the podium to inform us that we could join her in viewing some of the House’s stained-glass. A window mini-tour, if you will. Sign me up!
We took some of the less-traveled paths to appreciate the windows mentioned. It was very possible to take a very close look at the details discussed in Mr. Wolf’s lecture, increasing our appreciation. Janan shared some fun details about the twin dining room renovations while pointing out the location of the envelope’s discovery. I even got to reinspect the cobweb windows I fell in love with during the Holidays with the Historian tour. Then, we got to witness the magic glow of the bohemian jewels under black light! Our final stop was to take a gander at the stained glass in the grand ballroom. This wrapped up our quick trek and we exited through the Fleur de Lis front doors.
My Takeaway from the Centennial Speaker Series with Jim Wolf
This was the creative retreat I have been craving since the new year began. Nothing is more inspiring to me than a person who is obviously and genuinely moved by their subject. It was obvious that Mr. Wolf and Janan were equally eager to share this magical knowledge. Lucky for them, the room was full of fellow local historians, current and former employees, and Llanda Villa enthusiasts such as me, ready to absorb.
Will I be attending more of the centennial speaker series? Absolutely! Mystery is in the name, but the opportunity to hear even more about this historic home is a true opportunity. Especially when you get to hear it from the experts unraveling the mysteries. As much as I adore the potential supernatural experiences connected to this home, its real histories are what continually call me back.
I cannot wait to share more of these experiences with you in the coming year!
Craving More from this Centennial Speaker Series with Jim Wolf?
Curious about the full history on John Mallon and the Pacific Art Glass Works? Lucky for you, Mr. Jim Wolf’s full essay is available to read for free via Nineteenth Century magazine below:
One response to “Winchester Mystery House Centennial Speaker Series: Jim Wolf & the Pacific American Decorative Company”
Aaaah this is so cool! I love art history and l know next to nothing about stained glass so this was super interesting! Now l really want to get off my butt and contact the place l found that does custom stain glass and stain glass pane inserts (its a window that goes in the frame with your existing one) and I want one! Now more than ever! I also love how you build up your post!