Winchester Mystery House Still Mystifies

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. (Photo: Ben Franske [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

No matter how many shiny, starchitect-helmed tech campuses you cram into it, the Silicon Valley’s most remarkable architectural landmark will forever be a rambling Victorian mansion continuously built over a 38-year span by a very rich, very paranoid widow.

San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House stands as a National Register of Historic Places-listed testament to the fractured psyche of firearms heiress Sarah Pardee Winchester. Spanning 24,000 square feet, the labyrinthine residence is architecturally stunning despite its not-so-subtle eccentricities. Features such as forced-air heating and push-bottom gas lighting were considered state-of-the-art during the time of its nonstop construction from 1884 to Winchester's death in 1922.

That being said, the home is really quite something to behold: 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, 47 staircases, 52 skylights, six kitchens, three elevators, two basements and 13 bathrooms. Naturally, the 13th bathroom has 13 windows and 13 stairs leading up to it. There’s only one lonely shower in the entire joint, which is actually rather surprising given that you'd assume Winchester didn’t have the time for leisurely baths. After all, she spent nearly half her life overseeing a team of 13 dutiful carpenters and, as legend has it, fleeing from the antagonistic spirits of those killed by rifles manufactured by the company founded by her late's husband's father.

If all that weren't enough, the home, now a major tourist draw, went through a 10-month restoration plan that uncovered an additional 40 hidden spaces that were opened to the public in May of 2017, according to Atlas Obscura.

It was believed, until a few years back, that this habitable maze complete with trap doors, false passageways and upside down columns — you have to confuse those malevolent spirits somehow, right? — had a total of 160 rooms spread out across its six-acre footprint.

But, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, preservationists in 2016 unearthed a previously unknown and unexplored attic room that Winchester allegedly took refuge in during the historic earthquake that rattled the Bay Area in 1906. Winchester, rumored to have believed that the same pesky poltergeists who populated her home were also responsible for the tremor, subsequently boarded up the room and never entered it again. This may seem like an exceedingly odd action for a homeowner to take. But keep in mind that this was a homeowner who had a penchant for both exquisite Tiffany stained glass and doors that open onto walls. Sealing up entire sections of the mansion was as routine for Winchester's staff as waxing the parquet floors.

A place that constantly surprises

As noted by the Smithsonian, delayed discoveries of hidden rooms within the enigmatic mansion aren't totally unprecedented. In 1975, restoration workers unearthed a room containing nothing more than a couple chairs and a turn-of-the-century speaker. Apparently, Winchester had forgotten about it during the frenzy of building that went on 24/7 for 38 years straight.

Whatever the case, the 161st room and the items reportedly discovered there — a dress form, pump organ, artwork, sewing machines, Victorian couch and, from the looks of it, at least one creepy doll — add to the lore of the home and its owners.

Sarah Winchester portrait
Sarah WInchester portrait. (Photo: Public Domain)

Connecticut-born Sarah Winchester herself is the subject of a supernatural thriller released in early February 2018 that stars Helen Mirren as the planchette-toting rifle heiress who, unfortunately for historians, never kept a journal and employed notoriously tight-lipped staff.

Many believe the legend of kooky old Sarah to be just that — a tourist dollar-generating legend that's been masterfully honed over the decades. Some argue that actual paranormal activity had little to no role in the decidedly bonkers design of the home and that Winchester, noted just as much for her philanthropy as her obsessiveness, was simply a brilliant yet misunderstood millionaire widow who perhaps suffered from some form of mental illness.

In her myth-dispelling 2012 book "Captive of the Labyrinth," Mary Jo Ignoffo theorizes that some of the mansion's more perplexing architectural features such as a staircase leading up to a ceiling and a skylight installed into a floor are the result of uncompleted repairs undertaken following the 1906 earthquake.

Those in the pro-ghost camp, however, are convinced that the nonstop home-building/renovating/redecorating (estimated total price tag: $5.5 million) wasn't just a way for Winchester to confuse and evade the irate spirits of gun violence victims. As the Winchester Mystery House website elaborates, Winchester also strived to accommodate non-vengeful supernatural entities and held nightly séances to commune with them. In a sense, these spirits served as the unofficial architects of the master plan-less home.

If anything, Winchester’s need to appease "good" spirits does help to explain the staggering size of the property. After all, during her lifetime, Winchester rifles — the so-called "Gun That Won the West" — were responsible for the deaths of legions of people. And so, the eccentric and extraordinarily wealthy woman whose married name appeared on these firearms made it her life mission to provide displaced benevolent ghosts with a place to call home sweet home.

And what a home it is.

Sarah Winchester portrait: Public domain