24,000 square feet, 160 rooms, 38 years of construction, and who knows how many restless spirits — it’s the Winchester Mystery House! I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about this place. The House is located in San Jose, CA and it’s truly bizarre. Two of my dearest friends told me about the Winchester House back in 2008, and when my husband and I spent our honeymoon in San Francisco we decided we had to try and go check it out.
There are many different versions, but the basic story goes that in after the death of her husband and child, Sarah Winchester visited a medium who told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of the people who had been killed by the weapons produced by her late husband’s rifle company. Supposedly, the only way to appease the spirits was to go West, build a new home, and never let it be finished. If construction ever ceased, Mrs. Winchester would surely die at the hands of the angry spirits.
So, in 1886, Mrs. Winchester moved to San Jose and spent her husband’s fortune keeping workers building around the clock for the next 38 years. But the result of her labor isn’t just a great big house, it’s something much more peculiar. Architectural anomalies abound in the Winchester House. A staircase that leads straight up to the ceiling and stops. An exterior door on the second floor of the house that opens up to a 12-foot drop. Windowed corridors that allowed Mrs. Winchester to keep a careful watch on her employees. A cleverly-designed greenhouse with removable floor panels. A switchback staircase with short steps to accommodate Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis. Big rooms, tiny closets, secret passageways, and embellishments everywhere.
During the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Mrs. Winchester found herself trapped in the Daisy Room (named for the daisy motif on its stained glass windows). Frightened after the event, she chose not to repair or rebuild any areas of the house damaged in the earthquake, but continued on with brand new construction. (I think I remember the tour guide saying that she immediately sealed off the Daisy Room and it remained so until her death).
We saw a lot of cool things on our Winchester House tour, including Mrs. Winchester’s massive collection of Tiffany stained glass windows (there were several throughout the house in addition to a storage room full of them, nicknamed the “$25k Storage Room,” appropriately) which she would often have custom-made with certain imagery and symbolism. The tour guide had a lot of interesting stories to tell about the construction of the home, certain visitors, and the lonely life of Mrs. Winchester.
The tour doesn’t take you through every room, though you can opt for a basement tour or behind-the-scenes tour to see more. According to this site, about 1/3 of the mansion is off-limits to guests, some of it being used as office space and some of it being unsafe for guests. That site also mentions that employees get a special tour of certain locked-off rooms when they’ve been working at the House for thirteen months.
If you’re ever in the area, I definitely recommend checking out the Winchester Mystery House. It certainly has that tourist trap feeling, but it’s still an authentic, unusual, nearly 130-year-old mansion worth touring.