Travel Destinations

Monday, December 2, 2013

San Jose's Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House Exterior
The grand façade of the Winchester Mystery House hides some quirky interior architecture.
What do repeating rifles, daisies, spider webs, and the number 13 have in common?  One eccentric lady by the name of Sarah Winchester and her ever evolving crazy house of mystery. 

Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, the son of the original manufacturer of the Winchester repeating rifle.  The story of the Winchester Mystery House, located in the city of San Jose in Northern California, starts with a string of deaths.  Sarah Winchester lost her infant daughter, which sent her into a deep depression.  Fifteen years later she prematurely lost her husband.  Mrs. Winchester was devastated by the loss of her closest loved ones and visited her psychic to find out why everyone around her was dying.  The story goes that the psychic told her the spirits of all those killed by her husband’s Winchester rifles, including Native Americans and Civil War soldiers, were punishing her.  Fortunately the psychic had a solution.  Mrs. Winchester needed to move far away, purchase a piece of unfinished property, and build on it, continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Only in this way would she keep the spirits at bay and save her life as well as the lives of others close to her. 

Replica of the Winchester Family Tombstone
Replica of the Winchester family tombstone.
Sarah Winchester had visited San Jose with her husband in the past and decided on that location for her new home.  The estate, consisting of 24,000 square feet, 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, and 2,000 doors, started as a small farmhouse with a barn, now all incorporated into the mansion. 

Mrs. Winchester lived in the home for 38 years, until her death at the ripe old age of 82, and built continuously.  Her favorite number was 13, which is reflected throughout the home, where you will find rooms with 13 windows or 13 ceiling panels, or sinks with 13 drain holes, all built by her team of 13 carpenters.  Another recurring theme in the home is daisies, her favorite flower, believed to be her favorite because the perfect daisy has 13 petals.  Daisies, along with another of her favorite design features, spider webs, can be seen in multiple Tiffany stained-glass windows throughout the property. 

There are no blueprints of the home.  Mrs. Winchester adjourned to her séance room every evening at midnight, when the spirits would tell her what to build next.  She would then give those instructions to her workers the following morning.  The séance room has three ways out, but only one way in.  The door leading into the room used to have an eerie squeak, but was recently oiled, much to the dismay of the tour guides.

While the house has many things of beauty, including intricate inlayed wood floors and detailed carved moldings, most of it was built with no rhyme or reason.  There are staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that open into walls, and windows without a view.  There is an incredible cavernous ballroom, built with dowels and pegs rather than nails to provide the best acoustics, and yet probably never heard a note played, as Mrs. Winchester never had guests. In a particularly ornate hallway there is a large Tiffany stained-glass window, designed by the president of Tiffany himself and which cost a small fortune, but it is hung in a wall that never sees sunlight, completely losing the prismatic effect which it was intended to display.

Detail of Winchester Mystery House
Some of the beautiful detail of the outside of the Winchester Mystery House.
The tour of the house included some of the front 30 rooms which were boarded up after the 1906 earthquake.  Mrs. Winchester was sleeping in one of the bedrooms when the earthquake occurred and was trapped in the room for a short while.  She took this as a sign from the spirits that she was not meant to stay in one area of the house for extended periods of time.  Because she discontinued work on this portion of the house and closed it off, not to be reopened until after her death, the earthquake damage was never repaired and can still be viewed today. 

There are no original furnishings remaining in the house.  It took eight trucks a day for six and a half weeks to empty the house of its furnishings.  The pieces were sold at auction, and no records were kept of their final destinations, nor are there pictures of how the house looked furnished.  A couple of rooms have been furnished in the style of the time and based on information provided by the servants, but most of the house remains unfurnished, as the real interest lies in the eccentric architecture.

The Winchester Mystery House can be visited only by guided tour.  Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside, so you will have to visit in order to see the crazy architecture.  Tickets can include just a tour of the mansion, or can also comprise of a behind the scenes tour that visits some of the outbuildings and basement.  The gardens can also be visited on a self-guided tour.  While waiting for the tour to begin, you can visit the small Winchester rifle museum, have a snack, or, my favorite, visit the tasting room for a beer or wine tasting.

A Tasting Place
Tasting the local wines and beers at Winchester Mystery House.

Travel the World: Touring the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.