Bay Area Local Life

Take a Tour of San Jose's Winchester Mystery House

If you grew up in the Bay Area, you might remember a school field trip or birthday party to San Jose’s famous Winchester Mystery House. It’s one of the spookiest, strangest homes ever built, and it’s an official historic landmark of California. Located at 525 South Winchester Blvd., this mansion is known around the world for its architectural idiosyncrasies, impressive size, and lack of any master building plan. It’s also about to be featured in a major motion picture starring Helen Mirren.

Neighborhoods.com decided to step inside the spooky house to find out its secrets.

Why Was It Built

Sarah Winchester / Photo by Taber Photography / CC0

The Winchester Mystery House was once the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Sarah Winchester’s husband and infant daughter both died, and Winchester was terrified that her loved ones’ deaths were retribution from the universe for all the people who had died from Winchester Rifles. A medium (reportedly channeling the late William Winchester) told her that the spirits of the victims would haunt her unless she moved west and continuously built a giant mansion for herself and the ghosts. So Winchester left her home in New Haven and settled in Northern California.

Why the House is an Architectural Wonder

Courtesy of TripAdvisor

Winchester arrived in the Santa Clara Valley, purchased a farmhouse, and began building. Carpenters worked day and night until they completed a seven-story mansion. Winchester did not hire an architect and instead instructed workers at random, resulting in the architectural oddities that the mansion is famous for today.

The mansion contains numerous doors and stairs that lead to nowhere and windows that look into other rooms. Some balconies are inside rather than outside, chimneys stop before the ceiling, and rooms are built inside larger rooms. There was also only one working toilet while Winchester lived in the home; the rest of the bathrooms were decoys to confuse spirits, which was also the reason that she slept in a different bedroom each night. 

The home also had a lot of conveniences that were rare at the time it was built. From push-button gas lights and forced-air heating to modern indoor plumbing and a hot shower, the mansion was one of the most modern and advanced homes at the time. Winchester even installed three elevators, including an Otis Electric. 

The Number 13

Photo by billyboy71 / Photobucket

In her preoccupation with warding off evil spirits, Winchester is said to have taken direct inspiration from them in how the home was built. For example, the number thirteen and spider webs are frequent motifs in the mansion. An expensive chandelier that originally had 12 candle-holders was altered to fit 13, and clothing hooks are in multiples of 13. A web-patterned stained-glass window has 13 colored stones, and even the drain covers throughout the home have 13 holes. 

It’s “Earthquake-Proof”

The Winchester Mystery House before the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906

The 161-room mansion is primarily made of redwood but Winchester hated the look of it. That’s why a faux grain and stain were applied, and most of the wood in the home was covered. The house was seven stories when it was “finished”, but the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake damaged the structure. Today, it is only four stories high. Damage to the home could have been a lot worse, but it was built using a floating foundation that is believed to have saved it from ruin. 

See the House for Yourself

For a glimpse inside Sarah Winchester’s mansion and life, visitors can take a 65-minute tour of her home and see the architectural oddities in person. If you can’t make it in person, watch the movie about Winchester herself, starring Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren, which will be in theaters on February 2, 2018.

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