Offbeat Attractions: Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California

Winchester Mystery House (credit: Roxanna Salceda/Wikicommons)

When I was a young boy, I remember my grandparents telling me of a house so unusual—with staircases leading to the ceiling, doors opening to blank walls, and windows built into the floor—that I thought it was something from a fairytale. Only years later did I find out that the place was real and located right here in California. A couple of weeks ago I finally had the opportunity to see it for myself.

The door to nowhere

Known as the Winchester Mystery House, this 160-room mansion is located in San Jose, about an hour south of San Francisco. It was built by Sarah Winchester, the eccentric and reclusive heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. After the untimely deaths of her husband and infant daughter, Sarah sought the advice of a psychic medium who told her that if she ever stopped construction on her house, the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns would haunt for the rest of her life. Construction on her home began in 1884 and continued without interruption for thirty-eight years straight, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Sarah worked without blueprints—which is evident since there’s no rhyme or reason to the home’s floor plan. Rooms spill into rooms and labyrinthine passageways link up random parts of the house. However, everything was built with the kind of expert craftsmanship that you don’t see nowadays. The interior is very lavish, with exquisite hand-inlaid parquet floors, gold and silver chandeliers, and priceless Tiffany glass windows all over the manor. Everything was the best that money could buy. (Her stipend of $1000 a day from her shares in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was the equivalent of over $20,000 a day in today’s dollars!)

The Winchester Mystery House features many peculiarities (like my grandparents told me about) including forty-seven fireplaces, seventeen chimneys, 10,000 window panes, 950 doors, and 40 staircases. One of the mansion’s most infamous and bizarre things is a door that opens to the exterior of the house…two stories down! There’s even a staircase that has seven flights with forty-four steps, but only rises about nine feet. Weird stuff! On the tour, the guide explained that late in Sarah’s life her debilitating arthritis made it next to impossible for her to climb regular stairs, so “easy riser” two-inch high steps were installed throughout the mansion. She was really ahead of her time for her home was equipped with modern heating and sewer systems, gas lights that operated at the press of a button, an intercom-like system to summon her servants and three elevators.

A view from the 3rd floor balcony

The exterior of the mansion is a stunning example of Queen Anne style Victorian architecture. Elaborate and fanciful features abound, such as turrets topped with ornamental finials and spindles, shingle-clad walls, cupolas, cornices, gables and wrap-around porches. Everything is decked out in lacy, finely detailed trim work that makes the mansion almost resemble a gingerbread house.

Another interesting tidbit I learned on the tour was that Mrs. Winchester had an obvious fascination with the number thirteen, which can be observed throughout the house. Many of the windows have thirteen panes of glass, there are thirteen bathrooms (with thirteen windows in the newest one) and one of the bathroom sinks has thirteen drain holes. There are also instances of staircases with thirteen steps and several rooms have thirteen wall panels. There are even thirteen hooks in Sarah’s private séance room.

The Winchester Mystery House is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the Bay Area. After seeing the mansion firsthand, I’d say there’s a fine line between being eccentric and completely and utterly mad.

Sarah Winchester (public domain)

Where:The Winchester Mystery House is located in San Jose, California, roughly an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. The address is 525 South Winchester Blvd. San Jose, California 95128.

When: It is open every day of the year (except for Christmas Day) from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

How much: Tickets to the Mansion Tour are $30 for ages 13 – 64, $20 for children 6 – 12; The Behind the Scenes Tour is $27 for adults 13 – 64, $24 for ages 6 – 12; The Grand Estate Tour (both tours combined) is $35 for adults and $30 for children. Senior citizens get a couple dollars off admission, and children under 5 are free with a paying adult to the Mansion Tour only. No children are permitted to the Behind the Scenes Tour or Grand Estate Tour due to safety concerns.

For More information: Visit the official Winchester Mystery House website.

 

This aerial view from Google Maps really shows how large the mansion is!

 

Aerial View (Google Maps)

 

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