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Historic Homes of San Jose
By Ken Goldstein

Long before San Jose became known as the capitol of the Silicon Valley, the center of the computing universe, it was the capitol of California. For a brief period, between following the Mexican-American war, the capitol was moved here from Monterey (capitol of Mexican California), before moving again to its current home of Sacramento.

San Jose's long, colorful pre-internet history can be glimpsed by touring four historic homes that each represent an important era in the city's development.

The Peralta Adobe:

Built in 1797, this is the last building remaining from El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe. Two rooms, one with a dirt floor, the other wooden, with thick adobe walls, was the simple home of one of San Jose's earliest mayors (or alcalde) of the period when the Pueblo was part of the Spanish colony of Mexico.

The adobe is furnished as it might have been when occupied by the Peralta and Gonzales families, with simple hand-made furniture (you won't believe the whale bone chair). On the grounds of the adobe is an authentic "horno" - an outside working oven. For large school groups, they'll fire up the horno for you, as well as demonstrate how to make adobe bricks from mud, straw, and water.

Included in the tour of the Peralta Adobe is also the Fallon House.

The Fallon House:

Thomas Fallon built his Victorian mansion directly across St. John Street from the Peralta Adobe. Fallon had come to California with John C. Fremont, and was the first to raise the US flag over San Jose. He then settled in, becoming one of the city's earliest mayors of the US era. He built the home in 1855 with the intention that it be the grandest in the area, and a showcase to show that San Jose truly was a civilized city.

His wife, Carmel, was heir to a large portion of the Soquel Rancho, which reached the Pacific in the Monterey Bay. But, as visitors to the house will learn, Thomas also caused a bit of scandal with his affairs, including one with his children's nanny.

The 15 room mansion has been tastefully restored with furnishings from the pre-Civil War period. Visitors in December are treated to a period Christmas.

The basement of the house holds a small exhibit on the area's history, including the Fallon House's time as an Italian restaurant (1940s - 1960s). During the restaurant period, the Peralta Adobe was used for storage. Visitors there will see how the doorways were cut extra wide to accommodate barrels of food.

Winchester Mystery House:

Travelers heading north along California's freeways, from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, will surely notice the billboards informing them of the wonders awaiting them at the Winchester Mystery House. This massive Victorian mansion is one of the architectural marvels of the world.

Begun in 1884 as the home for Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, construction continued until Sarah's death thirty-eight years later.

The story goes that Mrs. Winchester had become convinced that the ghosts of all who had died by the Winchester Rifle were coming after her. The only way to avoid being caught by these angry spirits was for her to continue construction, building stairways that lead nowhere, doors that lead to thirty foot drops, and windows into nothingness. In so doing, the spirits would be confused, and always allow her to remain one step ahead of them.

Beyond the oddities that have earned this house its "mystery" moniker, the 160 rooms are also an example of turn-of-the-century architecture at its best. Modern gas lamps, with wall switches, lit the mansion that was heated by 47 fireplaces. As Sarah's health waned, three working elevators were installed.

While mystery enthusiasts will point out the seance room as a tour highlight (the room has only one way in, but five ways out), the historians will love the 1906 section. This is a large section of the house that was hit hard by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Mrs. Winchester declared these rooms off limits, and they remain today as they looked on that April morning a century ago.

This is one of the more expensive and commercial of Bay Area house tours, but a worthwhile trip that everybody should experience at least once. Warning: There are LOTS of stairs to climb!

The Ainsley House:

A few miles down Winchester Boulevard, leaving San Jose for the suburban city of Campbell, one will find the Ainsley House. Built in 1925 as the home for canning pioneer J.C. Ainsley, this 15 room mansion gives a feel for San Jose in the 1930s, when orchards covered the region.

The English Tudor Revival architecture is one of the finest examples of the style you're likely to find in Northern California. Inside, you'll see perfectly maintained original carpets and wall coverings. Most of the furniture is also the original, having been donated by Ainsley's granddaughters, along with the house, to the city of Campbell.

Also on the tour is the carriage house, which houses an historical exhibit, and the grounds, meticulously recreated in the original design laid out by San Francisco landscape architect Emerson Night.

The house originally sat about a mile east of its current site, and was moved (in one piece!) to its present location in 1990. A fascinating video of the move is shown in the carriage house.

One can purchase an admission for the Ainsley House alone, or a combined admission for the Ainsley House and the Campbell History Museum.

Copyright (c) Ken Goldstein