Fact, Fiction, and the Spaces Between: The Winchester Mystery House

A house with staircases leading to the ceiling. A door that opens to a sheer drop. Gorgeous stained glass windows, built where they will never see daylight. A cupboard door that opens to a honeycomb of thirty rooms. All of these architectural anomalies, and more, exist in the Winchester Mystery House, located near San Jose, CA, USA. All of it was built without a master blueprint, and its construction lasted decades. Yet the story of the Winchester Mystery House began long before its first redwood slat was ever laid. 

The Winchester Mystery House and its courtyard, courtesy of Roxanna Salceda, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Winchester (née Pardee) was happily married to William Winchester, the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1866, she gave birth to their only daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester. Tragically, the baby only lived five and a half weeks before dying of marasmus. Sarah’s grief was compounded when, in 1881, her father-in-law and husband both died. Sarah inherited $20 million dollars and almost 50% of the company’s stock — no small value, considering that the company made “the gun that won the west.” She took her money and in 1885, she arrived in California. 

The only known photo of Sarah Winchester. Courtesy of the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1886, Sarah bought the eight-room, two-story farmhouse that would one day become the Winchester Mystery House. She called it the Llanada Villa and began the renovations that would continue until her death. Two years later, her favorite niece, Marion “Daisy” Merriman would move in with her. She lived with her aunt until her marriage in 1903, when she moved out to live with her husband. Sarah, through all of this, continued her work on the house, with the building eventually reaching seven stories. However, this was not to last; the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 did considerable damage to the house, leading to the demolition of the seven-story tower and most of the fourth floor. Today, all that remains of the fourth floor is a balcony. 

The driveway of the Winchester Mystery House, courtesy of Spiel, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah did not live in the house all the time; in 1910, she bought a house boat in Atherton, closer to her sister Isabelle and niece Daisy. She would split her time between the two homes until her death on September 5th, 1922. She passed in her sleep due to heart failure. The event ended thirty-six years of construction. Daisy inherited $3000, Sarah’s personal effects, and a trust fund of $200,000. The rest of Sarah’s money was left to charity. The only thing not accounted for in her will was the house. In the end, Llanada Villa was sold in 1922 for $150,000 — a shockingly low sum, even for the time. Those who appraised it had deemed it nearly worthless.due to the oddities that would later make it famous. 

The house at night, courtesy of 206Cali, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

John and Mayme Brown leased Llanada Villa the following year. They were originally planning to open a roller coaster and theme park in the area, but changed course when they realized how fascinated the public was by the house. Mayme became the first tour guide, and the gardens became Winchester Park. There have been many famous visitors over the years, including Harry Houdini, who visited in 1924 and referred to it as The Mystery House. This helped it rebrand to its current name in the 1930s. The 1940s saw the original water tank burning, which damaged the tank house, necessitating repairs.

The house and some of its surrounding greenery, courtesy of Cullen328, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1960s were a busy decade. The nearby Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road was renamed to Winchester Boulevard. The park was closed so that some Century Theatres could be built. The Winchester Wax Museum opened. And, most notably, the Winchester Mystery House was incorporated in 1963. The 1970s saw the beginning of the restoration of the mansion and garden, including the furnishing of some rooms. Guided garden tours also began at this time, and the gift shop opened. In 1974, the house was listed as a state historic landmark and added to the national register of historical locations. The following decade saw the first flashlight tours of the house. The wax museum was closed and replaced by a café and a conference room. The Well House was also moved 100 feet during this time period, to make room for the new central courtyard.

The house’s historic marker, courtesy of the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

1990 opened the old stables and the oldest basement to the public in the Behind the Scenes tour. Six years later, the house was named a San Jose City Landmark. 2004 saw the restoration and reinstatement of the statue of the goddess Hebe. This statue was from Sarah’s time, and after 60 years, it was back where it belonged. A dozen years later, the Parlor Hallway was finally restored, using 130-year-old wallpaper from Sarah’s stockpile — it doesn’t get much more authentic than that! 2017 was a busy year for the Winchester Mystery House. The “Sarah’s Attic” shooting gallery was put in the central courtyard; the South Twin Dining Room was restored; the “Explore More” tour debuted in May, which opened dozens of rooms to the public and let them in through the front door (something not done before), and last but certainly not least, filming for the movie Winchester began. This feature film with Helen Mirren was released the following year. In 2019, Unhinged, a new, immersive horror experience, began. Sadly, it did not have much time, as the covid-19 pandemic forced the house to close its tours the following year. 2021 seems to have restarted the garden tours, but social distancing requires the inside tours to remain closed at the time of writing. Virtual tours are also available for a small fee. Since its opening in 1923, the Winchester Mystery House has drawn in over 12 million visitors. 

Some of the storage of the house, courtesy of JOHN LLOYD from Concrete, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Now that the long history of the house has been established, let’s talk about the house itself. Thirty-six years of constant construction did not result in a small house — it’s approximately 24,000 square feet, and took a whopping $5 million dollars to build in 1923 money (which would be approximately $71 million today). The Queen Anne Revival building has approximately 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights (including one in the floor), 47 staircases, 6 kitchens, 47 fireplaces (but only 17 chimneys), 3 elevators, and 13 bathrooms (though only one has a shower). 

Some of the house’s sinks, courtesy of Larry McElhiney, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The original decor was incredibly lavish, with gold and silver practically everywhere they could be and Tiffany stained glass windows. Remarkably for the time, there was also plumbing (including the aforementioned indoor shower and a complete sewage drainage system), wool insulation, hot water, push-button carbide gas lights, and forced air heating. Any wood in the building is redwood; Sarah insisted on this, though she disliked its appearance and had each piece stained, painted, and/or faux-grained to better suit her aesthetics. Perhaps more impressive, though, was her living plantlife; her gardens included a $20,000 English yew tree; 12,000 boxwood hedges; 1,500 major plants, shrubs, and trees; and a type of greenery called a Monkey Puzzle, which is indigenous to Chile. 

Aucuba japonica leaves from the house’s gardens, courtesy of Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The sheer grandeur of the house is undeniable, but that is not why this building is famous. Instead, it is so well-known due to its sheer oddity. There are, of course, trap doors and secret passages (including a cupboard door that opens up to a series of 30 rooms), but that alone would not make it stand out. No, that is thanks to — well, practically everything else in the house. The house is a labyrinth. One door (now roped off) opens to a steep, fifteen-feet drop on the outside of the house; another leads to an eight-feet drop to a kitchen sink; yet another opens straight onto a blank wall. Some staircases lead straight up to the ceiling. Some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows are hidden away where light will never shine through them. Other windows look like spider webs. One chimney, better known as “the little chimney that almost could,” rises four stories through the house, only to stop a foot and a half below the ceiling. Then there is the repetition of the number thirteen — there are many thirteen-paned windows, thirteen-paneled ceilings, thirteen-step staircases, and (most notably) the house’s thirteenth bathroom has thirteen windows. Sarah’s fascination with the number thirteen also extended to her will, which had thirteen parts and she signed thirteen times. Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that no one quite knows how many rooms the house has; 160 is an estimate, as every time they count, the owners come up with a different number.

The door to nowhere, courtesy of the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is unknown why Sarah built her house to be like this — and it was all Sarah. She was the sole architect of the house, and it is said that she retired to her seance room each night to draw up new plans. In the morning, she would consult with the foreman to discuss the building plans. No blueprints to the house itself have ever been found; the closest thing we have are the blueprints to one of the elevators, which were provided by the company. Back when Sarah was alive, it’s reported that her servants (especially the newer ones!) had maps, but these have since been lost. However, one thing is clear: Sarah was a brilliant, creative woman.

The staircase that leads to the ceiling, courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Now is when we move on from facts to speculation and legends. Far too many people are willing to write off Sarah’s architectural decisions as proof of insanity, but this is clearly not the case. Her designs are by no means ordinary, but to call her insane does her a great disservice. Another theory states that she was making a puzzle house, inspired by the works of Francis Bacon. This is often paired with the theory of her being part of a secret or mystic society like the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, or both. A different theory states that she built it to help her cope with her grief over the loss of her husband; she and her husband had enjoyed building their home in New Haven, Connecticut, so it’s likely that she built it to help her relive happier times. This theory could work in tandem with what is (in my opinion) the most likely explanation: Sarah Winchester was a philanthropist who sought to help employ members of the San Jose community during a period of economic difficulty. She was known both for paying well above the typical wage and for buying houses for the workers’ families to live in while they constructed her home. This was in-character for her, as she also built a hospital in her husband’s name and left most of her considerable fortune to charity upon her death. However, as Sarah was a very private person in life and left no journals in death, we will never know her true intentions.

The house’s piano, courtesy of Larry McElhiney, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

None of these, however, are the most popular theory as to why Sarah built this house. This theory is also the reason that the Winchester Mystery House is known as one of the most haunted places in the United States. According to legend, Sarah became fascinated with spiritualism after her husband’s death. This in itself was not unusual for the time period, as it was the height of the spiritualism movement and seances were common enough for many wealthy homes to have designated rooms for them. What is unusual is what a psychic supposedly told Sarah: That her recent misfortune was due to a curse placed on her by the ghosts of all of those killed by the Winchester rifle. The only way to avoid more tragedy was to move west, build a home, and never stop building. Some tellings add a warning that if she stopped construction, she would die, but if she kept building, she would live forever. As construction did stop from time to time, this detail is clearly untrue. 

Sarah’s bed in the Daisy Room, courtesy of the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The design of the house is allegedly used to throw off the ghosts. After all, if they are lost in the house, they can bring no harm — that was the logic. Supporting this idea are the hearsay reports that Sarah slept in a different bedroom every night and took strange, winding paths through her home. However, this behavior could simply be explained as an eccentric woman enjoying her art. After all, little is known of Sarah. She was reclusive, only seeing certain family members and those in her employ, and allowing only a select few of those to enter her home. Reportedly, she even turned away President Teddy Roosevelt when he tried to visit the odd home. That’s not all; she was also the only one allowed into the seance room. Those who believe the home to be haunted say that this is because the seance room is where she consulted benevolent spirits for house plans. 

The house’s statue, courtesy of Lyla0724, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits are said to haunt the home, including Sarah herself. She is reportedly most present in the Daisy room, where she died. Another spirit, according to tour guides, is the ghost of a worker, who pushes a wheelbarrow in the basement. Other reports include footsteps, orbs, ripple effects appearing on videos, cabinets opening on their own, beds unmaking themselves, lights turning on and off, doors moving on their own, drafts, cold spots, and presences. However, there is no need to worry; the spirits all seem to give off friendly, comforting, kind, and playful. Some people have even heard the barks of Zip, Sarah’s pet dog. Whatever remains in the Winchester Mystery House, be it spirits or mere memories, is not harmful. The most dangerous things in the house are areas that have yet to be repaired and are, as such, unsafe to enter. At the very least, the house is a fascinating look at what can be done with architecture, as well as a fascinating look into history. It’s also worth keeping an eye on it — future restorations may reveal even more of the house. We will just have to wait and see what more we can learn about Sarah Winchester’s life and artistic vision. 

The house in daylight, courtesy of TilTul, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

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Author: Joanna Gerberding

Hi! I am a recent graduate from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I double-majored in Spanish and Creative Writing, and hope to one day soon publish my own book. My favorite parts of history are the cultural aspects -- I love learning about what people did in their day-to-day lives!

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