Sarah Pardee Winchester, widow of the President of the Winchester Rifle Company and heiress to his fortune, visited a Boston psychic who gave her an odd directive: build a house to appease the spirits of all those who died at the hands of Winchester rifles. So in 1884, she moved to San Jose, California, bought an eight-room farmhouse, and transformed it into a 160-room Victorian mansion with 40 bedrooms, 13 baths, 2,000 doors, and 10,000 windows. Notable for both its architectural interest and for the eccentricity of its creator, the Winchester Mystery House merits a visit.
Not only did Mrs. Winchester attempt to appease the spirits, she also sought to confuse them by building stairways that lead to the ceiling, doors that open onto brick walls, and windows into the floor. (She may have used the windows to spy on her staff.) She also had carpenters install supporting posts upside down.
The superstitious Mrs. Winchester kept a seance room to which only she had access. It was these seance sessions that gave her the ideas for modifying the estate. She incorporated the number 13 into many architectural features: 13 windows in a room, 13 panels in a ceiling, 13 drain holes in a sink. The cobweb motif appears in many areas. Besides being superstitious, Mrs. Winchester was also diminutive. Several doorways were built to her 4’-10" height and many of the stairways feature tiny, low-rise steps.
The on-going construction of the house took 39 years and cost Mrs. Winchester $5.5 million of her $20 million fortune. Many of the rooms were left unfinished, and the 1906 earthquake damaged others. (The quake also took down the seven-story bell tower that once loomed over the house; the highest point now is four stories.) Although several main rooms have been recreated with period antiques, the house remains largely unfurnished, adding to its eeriness.
Sixteen bucks buys you a basic one-hour tour of the mansion. This allows you to see many of the rooms. Afterward, you can take a self-guided walk through the beautifully kept grounds. Audio recordings at stations along the way describe life on the estate, including an anecdote about a truncated visit from Teddy Roosevelt. Other, longer tours are available, but I found the basic house tour sufficient. However, special flashlight tours given on Halloween and Friday the Thirteenths sound like they might be a hoot.
At one time, the estate stretched 160 acres. It since has been reduced to four, but its gardens are an oasis amid the charmless strip malls and suburban sprawl of San Jose. The estate also houses a firearms museum in one of the out buildings. Here you can see the Winchester Repeater, "The Gun That Won the West." And, of course, the tour ends in the gift shop.