Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA
Today brings quite a treat to anyone who is a fan of weird, mysterious tourist attractions shrouded in legend and intrigue and a little bit of supernatural inclinations. For today, we take a trip up north to San Jose, home to a little estate called Llanada Villa. More popularly known as the Winchester Mystery House, this was the fabled sprawling complex of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who moved out west in 1884 to escape the hauntings of her tragic past and promptly began construction on a twisted, confusing, incredible feat of architecture that did not end until her death 38 years later, in 1922. A private and eccentric woman in life, her story became famed in death, and it wasn't long before her massive, 160+ room estate--the subject of much speculation and curiosity over the years--was open to the public as an attraction.
Today, the house remains a popular site for tourists. Famous for its doors and stairs to nowhere, unfinished interiors, and even a few ghost stories, the Winchester Mystery House is a captivating building unlike any other. And just a couple weeks ago, the house unveiled its first new tour in over two decades--the Explore More Tour--to go along with its ever-popular Mansion Tour. This past Memorial Day weekend, Westcoaster took a trip to visit this rather enchanting abode. Although visitors are not normally allowed to take photos inside the house itself, the fine folks at Winchester were gracious enough to allow us to photographically document our visit, which we now bring to you.
Around the Grounds
The Winchester Mystery House began as an expansion project. When Sarah Winchester arrived in 1884 in what is now San Jose--supposedly spurred by a Boston medium named Adam Coons who told her that the premature deaths of her husband and infant daughter were due to a curse placed by all those killed by Winchester rifles over the years--she purchased an eight-room farmhouse on a 161-acre plot of land. Immediately, she began construction on expanding the house. Legend says that Coons told Sarah that if she ever stopped building, the spirits would claim her as one of their victims as well. Her desperation to escape the ghosts who haunted her supposedly played the vital role toward why the Winchester Mystery House evolved into a labyrinth of a home, and why odd features such as doors into open shafts, dead end stairs, and doors and windows into walls were incorporated.
The outside of the house features a Queen Anne Victorian aesthetic, using hardy redwood siding and trim. Interestingly, though she appreciated its durability, Sarah Winchester didn't actually like the look of redwood, so she had it painted through most of its use on the house. With her wealthy allowance of $1000/day (which equates to over $24,000/day today), she was able to provide the finest ornamentation for her ever enlarging home. Beautiful stained glass windows, lovely Victorian gardens, and various statues adorn the estate. And though the property is much smaller today than it was back in the late 1800s, with major roads and highways abutting it, it still feels sheltered from the outside world.
Inside the House
While the outside is all quite pretty to behold, the interior of the house is the true star. Sarah Winchester kept construction going at all hours of the day for nearly four decades straight--save for a brief interruption by the 1906 earthquake. And a tour through the various spaces provides a fascinating insight into a deeply superstitious and odd woman.
As I mentioned, there are two tours now for the Winchester Mystery House--the regular Mansion Tour, which lasts a little over an hour and takes guests through over 100 of the house's spaces, and the all-new Explore More, which is twice as long and enhances the Mansion Tour by bringing guests into areas of the house never before seen by the public. It adds several dozen more spaces to the Mansion Tour, allows guest to enter through the front door (which was previously off limits to tour guests and also never used by Sarah to admit visitors either), takes them through the upper floors and attic of the house, and even briefly brings visitors outside onto part of the roof of the house.
The house originally stood seven stories tall, but the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake wrecked significant damage to the structure, including the collapse of the central bell tower. The tremor even trapped Sarah in her bedroom after the shaking caused the walls to shift and pin the door in place. Convinced that this was a sign from beyond, Sarah discontinued construction in the area of the house being worked on at the time of the quake forever. The house was rebuilt to its current four stories, but the incomplete remnants around the front of house remain preserved in time.
There are many quirks around the house that were custom tailored to Sarah's use. A small woman less than five feet tall, Sarah had no need for especially tall doorways, so there are some that require regular sized or taller people to hunch down. Sarah also had several "easy riser" stairs installed to help her get around vertically despite her severe arthritis. One in particular takes about a hundred steps to ascend merely nine feet vertically.
Sarah was a believer of the paranormal, and her favorite number was the number 13, which presents itself in countless details throughout the house. Ceiling panels are arranged to total 13. Stained glass windows have 13 jewels encrusted in. Hangers are arranged in sets of 13. The house has 13 bathrooms. Chandeliers hold 13 candles or lights. And fittingly, every Friday the 13th, the house rings the large bell on property 13 times at 13:00 (1pm).
Besides details of the macabre or mysterious, the Winchester House also featured many technological advances of the day, setting precedents for the time. Though she believed in the supernatural, Sarah Winchester also did not hesitate to furnish modern improvements and technologies of the period. The house has three elevators, including an Otis electric model. Steam and forced air heating were installed, as was indoor plumbing--a rarity for that era. In her older years, Sarah had a steam room built to help with her arthritis. And the house also features a relatively sophisticated annunciator system that Sarah could use to call her servants, who would then know from which room she needed assistance.
The beautiful stained glass windows also proliferate inside. Many were designed by the Tiffany Company, including one commonly referred to as the most expensive window in the house--a $1500 ornate stained glass piece that was installed against a wall on the north side of the house, so that it never allows light through. This was more of a testament to her tragic past, representing the beauty of her lost family, destined to never light her life again.
But in other ways, the house is quite naturally lit. Multi-story light wells allow sunshine to filter down to the lower levels of the house into skylights. Certain clerestory windows flood light into normally dim hallways at the right time of the day. Plenty of rooms have windows to the outside for views or ventilation. To that end, the house incorporated many strategies considered sustainable and leading edge today.
With so much irregular features, the Winchester Mystery House has also proven to be inspiration to theme park designers. Both outside and especially in, the house has also served as inspiration to many theme park attractions--the Haunted Mansion and Mystic Manor, for example. Guests who go through the house may spot certain details that find derivatives in favorite theme park attractions today.
Despite its rich beauty, the house still carries with it the weight of its past. Numerous people--both guests and employees--have reported ghost sightings or unexplained happenings around the mansion. The house has hosted seances, ghost hunters, and even Harry Houdini. One should remember that the Winchester Mystery House wasn't just home to Sarah Winchester. It was also home for her niece and personal secretary, Marian Marriott, as well as her servants, plus the foreman and workers of the house. With so much devotion to a house and mistress of the estate, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that the spirits of some of these parties never left.
I could spend hours describing the various rooms and spaces within the house, but that would spoil the fantastic tours offered at the Winchester Mystery House. Even the photos below are only a glimpse of what the house has to offer. There are so many angles and rooms that nothing truly does a real life visit any justice. But perhaps these pictures can whet your appetite.
Ultimately, the Winchester Mystery House is a wonderfully fun and practically unbelievable experience. Those with architectural or engineering leanings won't believe how the house was constructed and constantly expanded without blueprints. Those fascinated by the legends around Sarah Winchester will love the eerie vibes that pervade the house. And those just looking for a cool and weird tour through an almost absurdly original manor will appreciate the oddities of everything.
The Winchester Mystery House is definitely a must-see stop for anyone visiting the Bay Area. It's one of several great thematic destinations in that part of Northern California, along with California's Great America, Gilroy Gardens, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, and others. But the Winchester Mystery House offers something no other tourist attraction in the country (and possibly the world?) comes close to duplicating. I highly recommend a visit if you get the chance!
WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE AT A GLANCE
- Name: Winchester Mystery House
- Address: 525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA 95128
- Web Site: http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/
- Admission: $20.00 - $47.00 depending on tour and day/time, seasonal events vary
- Hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day - 9AM-7PM, Labor Day to Memorial Day - 9AM-5PM, Closed Christmas Day
- Metro Stop(s): N/A
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.