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Local Winchester House preserves legend, with less mystery

Photo by Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The Winchester-Merriman House in Los Altos preserves a three-quarter acre lot and many of the Carpenter Gothic flourishes of the late 1800s. Now on the market, the 12-room house last sold in 2003.

The land is so beautiful under the enormous oak at the historical property on Edgewood Lane in Los Altos, it is not surprising there is evidence of a house here as early as 1840. The Ohlone lived here long before that. With the Coast Range as a backdrop and wildflowers blooming in the sunshine, it is an ideal location people long to call home.

The property was once a piece of the 4,440-acre Rancho San Antonio, granted to Juan Prado Mesa in 1839. Mesa, a soldier, died in 1845, badly in debt. His executor sold the land for

7 cents per acre.

This spring, the house on the old Mesa property, now known as the Winchester-Merriman House for its connection to Sarah Winchester and her sister, went on the market in Los Altos for the first time in 15 years. In 1999, it sold for $725,000. In 2003, the price was $2.95 million. This time, the list price on the 3,148-square-foot home on approximately three-quarters of an acre is $6.998 million. That’s about 100 million times the price of the land back in Mesa’s day. You didn’t need a séance to predict the outcome. It sold in a week for an as-yet-undisclosed price.

Connection to the Woman of Mystery

In 1888, there was a four-room cottage on the property when Sarah Winchester, of Mystery House fame, purchased it for her sister Isabelle Merriman, who wanted to raise carriage horses here.

The sisters transformed it into a 12-room Carpenter Gothic they called “El Sueño,” or “The Daydream.” It features oblique angles, fish-scale shingles and intentionally mismatched windows – a hallmark of stylish homes of the era.

One of the windows is believed to have come from a San Jose church. Another looks like a window on Sarah’s own San Jose mansion. The attic features redwood beams and mullioned windows. Behind the porch is a storm cellar straight out of Kansas. A pool house tucked into the back of the property is larger than most Silicon Valley apartments.

The house, in a roundabout way, played an important role in the founding of Los Altos. Sarah Winchester’s sister loved living at “El Sueño,” but she and her husband, Louis Merriman, were never very good at ranching. Their debts and bankruptcies frustrated Sarah and she pondered selling. Shortly before the 1906 earthquake, Southern Pacific Railroad officials asked Winchester to sell them a right-of-way through the ranch for a rail line.

The property was approximately 140 acres and included the land that is now downtown Los Altos, where the Merrimans pastured their stock.

Winchester told the Southern Pacific its plan to run tracks between the pasture and Adobe Creek – roughly along what is today Foothill Expressway – would make it difficult for the horses to get to their water. She urged railroad representatives to build elsewhere or buy her out.

During negotiations, gossips said Winchester went out at night and pulled up the SP’s surveying stakes. Winchester was 60 years old and plagued by rheumatoid arthritis by then – so that is unlikely. But the railroad did get an injunction against her sister.

In the end, the SP purchased the entire place, using the right-of-way for the tracks and flipping the rest to SP executive Paul Shoup. He and a developer subdivided the property into building lots. Thus, Los Altos was born.

Los Altos landmark

The house is now listed as the oldest house in Los Altos and is a city Historic Landmark. It has further status under the Mills Act, which gives owners a tax break in return for preservation.

“It is really gorgeous,” said realtor Jan Ahmadjian-Baer after a recent showing.

Ahmadjian-Baer also serves on the Los Altos Historical Commission.

“The windows and mouldings have been maintained, yet it has been wonderfully updated – just the way a historic house should look,” she said.

Although Winchester’s alleged ties to the occult always raise questions about spirits, the closest thing to spirits at the Winchester-Merriman House today can best be found in the home’s light-filled sitting room. It has a bar next to the fireplace.

There is one oddity worth noting. On the gatepost is the home’s Historic Landmark plaque, with its landmark number. The Winchester-Merriman House is City of Los Altos Historic Landmark No. 13. Just another intriguing detail of the oldest house in town.

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