Various theories have been put forth regarding the origins of Psycho’s Bates Mansion. Author James Michener once claimed that it was based on a Victorian-era, reportedly haunted, house in Kent, Ohio. Another rumor maintains that it was based on the Hotel McCray of Santa Cruz, California. Wrong and wrong. The fact of the matter is that the architecture is more-or-less original.
The house and its downscale add-on, the Bates Motel, were co-created as original designs by production designer Robert Clatworthy and art director Joseph Hurley. Clatworthy was an especially inspired choice, as he had worked on the similarly seedy-gothic Orson Welles masterpiece Touch of Evil just two years prior. (If you’re looking for a fun double feature, watch these two movies back-to-back and count the similarities.) As Hitchcock told Truffaut,
"The mysterious atmosphere is, to some extent, quite accidental. For instance, the actual locale of the events is in northern California, where that type of house is very common. They're either called "California Gothic," or, when they're particularly awful, they're called "California gingerbread."That said, Hitch, as you might recall from my November 23, 2009 post, named Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the specific inspiration behind the Bates Mansion. That is to say, while the architectural details came from any number of sources (even as the house parts themselves were cadged from other sets on the Universal lot), the Hopper painting provided a basis for the mood of the Psycho house, which would be delivered through lighting, editing, framing and other cinematographic techniques.
Okay, but where did Hopper get the idea for his painting? What was his model?
That would be the large house (now subdivided into apartments) that sits on Route 9W just north of the entrance to Main Street in the village of Haverstraw, New York. While at one time it was a grand home, the place later went to pot. Vagrants even squatted there for a time until district attorney of Rockland County, Thomas Gagan, purchased it 1919 and (presumably) renovated it. Gagan’s daughter, Amo, occupied a bedroom on the second floor and stayed in the house for over half a century. No doubt she occasionally took visits from Hopper fans and, perhaps, later, Hitchcock fans. You can read about her and the house in this article from the Atlantic Monthly. There was, however, one particular visitor who remained lodged in her memory for the rest of her life. That encounter occurred one day when she was 13 years old and happened to be alone in her room. Looking out the window, she caught sight of a man across the tracks, seated at his portable easel, creating an American icon, one brushstroke at a time.