By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: As we approach Halloween, I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about the bewitched Sarah Winchester mystery house in San Jose.)
In Brief: Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, built a 160-room mansion in San Jose, partly because she was obsessed with the process of building and partly because she had a disposable income of $1,000 a day (which was tax free until 1913). The house has many beautiful details mixed with bizarre oddities, such as doors opening onto walls and stairs going nowhere. Many believed Sarah Winchester was communicating with a spirit world.
The Winchester House in San Jose, CA
The Historic Story: The Winchester Mystery House is a Victorian extravaganza owned, designed, and built over 38 years (1884-1922) by Sarah Winchester.
The story begins during the Civil War in 1862 when Sarah Pardee met and married William Wirt Winchester, son of the manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle.
Their one child, a daughter, died shortly after birth in 1866. William died 15 years later.
Sarah Winchester was deeply upset by these deaths. Beyond that, it is difficult to determine where the true story ends and legend begins.
It is said that Sarah consulted a medium, who explained that the spirits of all those who had been killed by the Winchester rifle had sought their revenge by taking the lives of her loved ones. The psychic suggested she could escape the curse by moving West, buying a house, and continuing to build on it.
In 1884 Sarah moved to San Jose and purchased an eight-room farmhouse from a Dr. Caldwell. She then began her never-ceasing construction plan, building steadily, 24 hours a day for 38 years until her death.
She employed a small army of almost 60 carpenters, domestic servants, and gardeners to create the topsy-turvy project on her 161-acre estate. Twenty-four of the rooms are now outfitted with authentic Victorian furniture.
Certainly she was an eccentric. Whether she was in touch with some spiritual power and directed by that relationship is hard to determine.
Her inheritance was roughly $20,000,000, plus 48.8% of the shares of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Those resources provided her with the thousand-dollar-a-day allowance.
The house is something of an architectural anomaly, roughly characterized as Victorian. The hardwood floors, elaborate trim work, and ornate gables are lovely. The Tiffany and other art glass in doors and windows is unsurpassed. The front doors to the house, installed in 1906, were of European art glass and were purchased then with 3,000 uninflated dollars. These doors are good examples of the masterpieces of detail in the structure.
What is more difficult to comprehend are Sarah’s obsessions, such as with the number 13. There are 13 coat hooks in the closets, 13 windows in the rooms, 13 steps in the staircases. There are also doors opening onto blank walls or onto drop-offs and staircases leading to dead ends. It is said that Sarah slept in a different bedroom every night.
A narrated house tour takes you through 110 of the 160 rooms. After that you can make a self-guided tour through the elaborate Victorian Gardens. The Gardens reflect the Victorian passion for collecting trees, shrubs, and flowers from all parts of the world. In fact, Sarah had plants on her estate from 110 countries. Her aviary was filled with tropical birds, which were kept warm year-round with a special heating mechanism. The Garden tour takes you past major points of interest where a continuing tape narration tells the story. You see the Estate Greenhouse, Garage, Pump House, Water Tower, Dehydrator, and Gardener’s Tool Shed.
After Sarah’s death in 1922, the house deteriorated gradually until 1973, when restoration began. In 1983 the house reopened as a museum with two additional resources, the Winchester Historical Firearms Museum and the Winchester Products Museum. On exhibit is the largest collection of Winchester rifles in the West. You’ll see B. Tyler Henry’s 1860 repeating rifle, which Oliver Winchester adapted and improved to produce his first Model 1866. The Winchester Model 1873 was a superior rifle with a steel mechanism and used heavier centerfire cartridges. It was this rifle that became known as “The Gun that Won the West.” Winchester also made many other products, from camping equipment to bicycles, which are on display.
Getting There: Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose.
Be Sure to See: The tour at Winchester makes this site a destination in itself.
Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for the Winchester Mystery House. Special Guided Flashlight Tours are given on each Friday the 13th and on Fridays and Saturdays in October to celebrate Halloween.
Lodging: The luxurious Fairmont Hotel (170 S. Market St., San Jose; 408/998-1900; www.fairmont.com) is a gracious 541-room structure that anchors modern downtown San Jose.
Dining: The landmark Italian restaurant is still Original Joe’s (corner of First and San Carlos streets, 408/292-7030). There are 110 choices on its elaborate menu.
For Further Information: The Winchester Mystery House is at 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose; 408/247-2000; www.winchestermysteryhouse.com.
For area information, contact Team San Jose (408 S. Almaden Blvd.; 408/792-4511 or 888/726-5673; www.sanjose.org).
The San Francisco region figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.