The House That Guns Built


The Winchester Rifle is "the gun that won the west" -- and it made the Winchester family very wealthy. We take a tour of the family's summer compound and trace their complicated, fascinating history.


Laura Trevelyan is very British. Her grandfather George was one of the most prominent British historians of the twentieth century. Wallington, her family estate in Northumberland, belongs to the British National Trust. Her great, great, great grandfather Sir Charles was immortalized in a Northern Irish song bitterly called “Trevelyan’s Corn,” because in the 1840s he was in charge of famine relief. In 2006 she wrote a memoir about her ancestors. Its title: A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and Their World.

So you would expect the longtime BBC correspondent to have been upset when her husband, James Goldston, the president of ABC News, informed her that in order to accept his current job, they’d have to leave Britain and move to New York. Instead, Laura immediately phoned a cousin and asked which part of New York City she should live in. (Answer: Brooklyn). The reason for her lack of discomfort was that despite her very British name, heritage, and accent, she has a second lineage every bit as intrinsic to American culture as the Trevelyans are to Britain. That lineage, and the intrigues of her colorful American forebears, are the subjects of her second book, The Winchester: The Gun That Built An American Dynasty, out this month.

Laura’s great, great grandfather Oliver invented the Winchester Repeating Rifle, which, as all students of American history know, is The Gun That Won the West. Its creation meant that the Winchesters—originally farming stock from outside Boston—became very, very rich. Nevertheless, when Laura’s grandfather Humphrey Trevelyan, a Cambridge academic, proposed to Laura’s grandmother, his relatives let him know that they considered the Winchesters “trade.”

As a boy, Laura’s father and his family would traverse the Atlantic in the QE2 to the stay at “the Big House,” a mansion on Johnson’s Point in the Connecticut Shoreline town of Branford. Built to be near the Winchester factory in New Haven, the Big House rested on smooth blue-grey rock jutting into the Long Island Sound, creating incredible views but also danger. “My father was there during Hurricane Gloria in 1956,” says Laura. “Everybody had to go into the basement with candles while the hurricane raged and windows smashed.”

Now the Big House is gone, knocked down in the 1960s so that Laura’s grandmother and her four siblings could build their own houses. However, much of the estate remains intact, as do many of the family’s idiosyncratic traditions. For example, Laura tells me as we walk the land one April morning, as a teenager she watched her great aunts, who were “fond of tennis, family, and cocktail hour,” firing tennis balls with an ancient elephant gun at trespassers. (Even now, only family members are allowed to cross a footbridge leading across an inlet to the estate.)

Even now, only family members are allowed to cross a footbridge leading across an inlet to the estate.

Trevelyan, 47, is now an anchor for BBC World News America. She, Goldston, and their three sons live in Brooklyn Heights during the week and on weekends transfer to what used to be the Johnson’s Point caretaker’s cottage. (The two-bedroom cottage is charmingly, if precariously, perched at water’s edge in a flood zone.) It was while staying at the cottage that Laura found much of the inspiration for her book, which she wrote on the train to and from Washington, D.C., where BBC World News America is recorded.

She shows me a glimpse of family life, past and present. In the boathouse a large red “war canoe” hangs upside down, since all Winchester women were given war canoes when they married. There is also a great winch for launching yachts, one of which was so magnificent the U.S. Navy commandeered it during World War II to patrol for u-boats.

We walk past a pretty walled-off rose garden planted by Laura’s great grandmother, Susan Bennett. One of the most interesting parts of The Winchester is the story of the business’s decline, which took place during the First World War, and which Susan and her husband had the misfortune to preside over. “You’d think that war would be good for gun companies,” says Laura, “but in fact they went into huge debt to expand. The contract prices of the rifles didn’t reflect what making them actually cost, so this scheme was hatched to make household products bearing the Winchester name, with the slogan “as good as a gun.”

It was a disaster, and Winchester Bennett, Susan’s husband, seemed to crack under the pressure, checking into a psychiatric hospital. He would be the last family member at the helm of the firm. His marriage with Susan is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries. A prolific writer and sought-after beauty, Susan “cried” when her parents forced her to marry “Win.” “She never says how she feels about him,” says Laura. “So you can only guess.” Probably she suffered in silence, finding solace in her rose garden.

Perhaps the most famous Winchester is Sarah, who spent 38 years building the architecturally crazy “Mystery House” in San Jose, California, after being driven mad, according to legend, by the deaths of her child and husband. Laura argues that Sarah was quite rational, actually, which is why she donated a large chunk of her fortune to Yale instead of less-deserving nephews and nieces, who received carefully-limited income from trusts. She built the eccentrically large rambling house, Laura believes, “because she could.”

Laura’s grandmother Molly was another deeply unhappy Winchester woman, transplanted from America to “windy Cambridge” by her husband Humphrey (who was involved in intelligence work at Bletchley Park during the war), whereupon she found herself alone with five children, unable to return home. “Molly wrote letters all morning each day, describing what she missed about Johnson’s Point—the lobster cookouts, playing tennis,” says Laura. While her husband fought against the Nazis, Molly was a pacifist who spoke disapprovingly of the family’s “gun money.”

Yet nothing overcame her passion for Johnson’s Point—which she passed on to her granddaughter. “It’s a sanctuary,” says Laura. “You are so close to the water you can hear it. Johnson’s Point is why I was comfortable when James was offered the job. There was a life here that I could be part of, that I wouldn’t have to create. I think of my grandmother being born in the Big House, scrambling over the rocks just like my children. I just feel enormously lucky.”