Standing in the middle of suburban San Jose, California, is a sprawling Victorian mansion surrounded by beautifully kept gardens, which from the outside appears nothing out of the ordinary. But the inside is another story.
The house, originally belonging to Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, is perhaps one of the strangest homes ever built. This seven-story mansion, containing over 160 rooms, is full of architectural curiosities and surprises —stairs that lead to ceilings or solid walls; doors that opened to steep drops; windows that open to other rooms; skylights placed in between floors; blind chimney that stops short of the ceiling and dozens of other oddities that resulted out of an inexplicable obsession that drove its former owner to keep building the house continuously for 38 years.
The story of the house begins with the death of William Wirt Winchester in 1881, that left Sarah in possession of an incredible fortune — over $20 million and nearly 50% stake in the Winchester company giving her an income of $1,000 a day. This was an enormous sum for that time, but the wealth was no consolation to her losses. Fifteen years earlier Sarah had lost her infant daughter, a tragedy from which she had hardly recovered when she lost her husband.
Crippled by grief, Sarah approached —as the story goes— a psychic medium for advice. The medium told her that the Winchester family was being haunted by the ghosts of all those who had felled to rifles manufactured by her husband’s company, and that the untimely deaths of her daughter and her husband was a result of this. The medium then advised her to move west and to appease the spirits build a great house for them, and never stop building. And that’s exactly what Sarah did. She left New Haven, Connecticut and settled in San Jose, where she bought a modest property.
Sarah consulted no architect and had no master plan, but each morning she would meet with her foreman and show him her sketches for that day’s work. The plans were often chaotic, and when they didn’t work, Sarah would have it torn down or remodeled or sealed over. This led to some of the curiosities found within, such as stairs and doors that lead to nowhere, and hallways that doubled back on itself. One theory is that Sarah was trying to disorient the ghosts and trap them within the maze of rooms and hallways. Nobody knew what Sarah was trying to achieve. Maybe it was the ghosts or maybe she was simply seeking a never-ending hobby to distract her from her grief.
The house was pretty advanced for its time and was fitted with such conveniences as modern indoor toilets and plumbing, hot showers, forced-air heating, push-button gas lights, electric and hydraulic elevators. It had gold and silver chandeliers, hand-inlaid parquet floors and trim, German silver and bronze inlaid doors. Sarah had the finest cabinetmakers toil for years to build chests and drawers where she stored the rarest satins and silks, hand-embroidered oriental linens, and elegantly woven cloth from Persia and India.
Construction of the mansion continued relentlessly for 38 years until Sarah Winchester passed away in her sleep on September 5, 1922. Some stories say that carpenters stopped with nails hammered halfway when they learned about her death.
At the time of her death, the sprawling mansion covered 4.5 acres and had a floor plan so confusing that every time a room count was taken, a different total came up. The house was originally advertised to contain 148 rooms. The figure was later adjusted to 160. Just this October, a new room was discovered, taking the current total to 161.
It is estimated that Sarah spent $5.5 million building the house, but when it was auctioned off after her death, it fetched a mere US$135,000. Nonetheless, it became an immediate tourist attraction, and by 1924, it had already acquired the nickname ‘Mystery House’. In 1974, the Winchester House was added to the US National Register of Historic Places.