Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Puzzling and Peculiar Winchester Mystery House

The Puzzling and Peculiar Winchester Mystery House

One of the most intricate, puzzling, and misunderstood houses I have ever visited is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Construction on this 160-room house lasted 24 hours a day for 38 years under the guidance of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. Construction proceeded until her death on September 5, 1922. But why did this house need so much continuous work? What was Sarah Winchester trying to achieve? Much of it will never be known or completely understood, but many theories exist.

Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, a position he held until his death from tuberculosis in 1881.

Sarah, born around 1840, grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. It was there that she met William Winchester. They married on September 30, 1862 in New Haven. William was the only son of Oliver Winchester, the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

However, shortly after their marriage, tragedies would strike Sarah one after the other. Their only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, died only a few weeks after birth on June 15, 1866 from the childhood disease marasmus. Her father-in-law, Oliver Winchester, died in 1880 and about a year later was followed by his son, and her husband, William.

Staircase which goes into the wall. Photo courtesy the Winchester Mystery House.
Upon his death, Sarah inherited more than $20 million and gained a fifty percent ownership in the Winchester Company, which produced an income of approximately $1,000 a day. Soon after William's death, Sarah visited a Boston psychic named Adam Cooms who allegedly told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle and that she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits. The medium is claimed to have told her that if construction on the house ever stopped, she would join her husband and infant daughter.

In 1884 she purchased an unfinished eight-room farmhouse from a Dr. Caldwell and 161 acres. The farmhouse would become the first section of her extravagant home. She did not use an architect or engineer to design the house, so it was done haphazard and without any formal layout or plans. Some believe that the design was influenced and communicated to her through her nightly seances.

The Grand Ballroom.  Photo courtesy the Winchester Mystery House.
Constant construction and the lack of a master plan made the house become very large and complex. The house, which is mainly constructed of redwood, has many oddities such as doors that open into walls, a door to nowhere that opens to the exterior of the house on the second story, staircases that lead nowhere, the recurring number thirteen in many architectural features (chandeliers, window panes, and the number of bathrooms), and windows that look into other walls. There are two theories as to why she built such an unusual house: The first theory is that she built the house to confuse the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. The second, is that while she was an exceedingly wealthy woman and could build her house any way that she wanted, she had no architectural training at all so some of the oddities could be simple design error. However, one may wonder why these errors were never fixed.

Prior to 1906 there was a seven-story tower on the house. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the tower was badly damaged and never rebuilt. Most of the rest of the home survived largely intact because it was built using a floating foundation, meaning that the framing isn't directly connected into the brick foundation, allowing to adjust to settling and movements such as an earthquake. During the earthquake, Sarah Winchester was stuck in a bedroom for many hours because the door became stuck due to a shifting frame. After she was rescued, she boarded up all of the rooms in the front of the house (which were nearing completion) and never used them again. That includes the $3,000 art glass front doors, which had just been installed. It is believed that only she and the two carpenters who installed them were the only people to use them before they were sealed off! Legend says that the spirits were angry that she was spending so much time on the front of the house. Those boarded up rooms were eventually uncovered and remain in their 1906 damaged and unfinished state today.

Winchester Mystery House with seven-story tower, circa 1900. Photo courtesy the Winchester Mystery House.
Sarah Winchester kept a staff of eighteen domestic servants, thirteen carpenters, and ten gardeners and field hands. In addition to being well-paid, the staff was fed breakfast and lunch daily and received medical care.

Today the house is approximately 24,000 square feet, and there are roughly 160 rooms, including forty bedrooms, two ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished) as well as forty-seven fireplaces, fifty-two skylights, over 10,000 panes of glass, seventeen chimneys, six kitchens, two basements, three elevators, and one shower. There are also a number of surviving outbuildings on the now 4.5 acre property. The remaining outbuildings include a foreman's house, fruit drying shed, tank house, pump house, garage/car wash, a greenhouse, and gardener's tool shed.

A door which leads to a wall. Photo courtesy the Winchester Mystery House.
Since construction stopped abruptly, portions of the exterior of the home remain unfinished to this day and are painted black to represent that. For example, a small addition toward the front is framed but was not closed in and includes an interior door to a bathroom which can only be reached from the exterior.

After her death on September 5, 1922 from heart failure, all of her possessions were bequeathed to her niece and personal secretary. Her niece kept what she wanted and sold the rest in a private auction. The house, considered worthless due to its odd design and remaining damage from the 1906 earthquake, was sold at auction to T.S. Barnett, a local investor, for over $135,000, and leased for 10 years to John and Mayme Brown, who eventually purchased the house. In February 1923, five months after Winchester's death, the house was opened to the public, with Mayme Brown serving as the first tour guide. Since then, it has remained open to the public as an attraction and museum.

Additional photos of my trip to the Winchester Mystery House on Pinterest

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Winchester Mystery House

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