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Friday 3 January 2014

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose

New Year's Eve just happens to be Kim's birthday and this year the girls really wanted to take him somewhere to celebrate. After vetoing Ava's idea of a last minute camping trip (no time to organise a campsite plus it's quite cold at night) we decided to head down to San Jose to visit the Winchester Mystery House, a place we'd been keen to visit for a while.

The Winchester Mystery House is a four storey Victorian mansion of some 160 rooms which was the home of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heir of the Winchester rifle company. It was built between 1884 and 1922 with construction never ceasing during this time.

Winchester Mystery House
Sarah Winchester moved to San Jose from the east coast after the early death of her husband. Fifteen years earlier the Winchesters had lost their only child in early infancy and these two losses impacted greatly on Mrs Winchester. She appears to have been quite a superstitious person and after the death of her husband she is said to have consulted a medium who advised her that she was haunted by the spirits of those who had been killed by the Winchester repeating rifle. In order to appease the spirits, or at least confuse them so they could no longer haunt her, she was advised to head west and find an unfinished home to work on - continuously. This work would continue 24 hours a day until Mrs Winchester's death in 1922.

So this background already gives the house a little mystery. What makes it even stranger is that Mrs Winchester designed most of the home herself without the help of an architect. Only one room was architect designed, the grand ballroom which was built almost entirely without the use of nails. The rest of the house was designed by Mrs Winchester, supposedly after she consulted with spirits in nightly seances. She is said to have taken to her seance room late every night and would emerge a few hours later with the next day's building plans. This resulted in a lot of changes being made (over 600 rooms were built and rebuilt) and an awful lot of odd decisions made when it came to the placement of rooms, doors, windows etc. There is one staircase that leads directly to the ceiling, another staircase that goes up 7 steps and then down 11, a door that leads directly outside on the second floor, false cupboards that are only an inch deep... It is also said that these oddities were included to confuse spirits.

The "Door to Nowhere" open on the second floor

Mrs Winchester was very short (4'10") so many of the fixtures were built for her height which just adds to the strange feel of the interior. Lola was pretty excited to discover that many of the windows and sinks were at her height! There's even one tiny doorway that only Mrs Winchester could fit through without stooping. In her old age Mrs Winchester suffered greatly from arthritis and had many of the staircases replaced with easy riser steps as she struggled to use regular height steps. Both Ava and Lola thought that the easy riser steps were fantastic!

No expense was spared with the construction and decor of the mansion. Mrs Winchester had inherited over $20 million at the time of her husband's death along with enough shares in the Winchester company to earn an income of $1000 a day. She spent large amounts of money on stained glass panels (many from Tiffany), imported wallpaper and fixtures, and exquisite fabrics. In order to avoid others in the area using the same fabric for curtains etc she would purchase all of the fabric available in a particular pattern. Much of this excess fabric can be seen in the famed $25,000 storage room along with spare stain glass panels, huge amounts of wallpaper and various building materials. The room was named for the valuation of the items found inside at the time of her death. Of course, the valuation of these materials is now in the "priceless" category. Many of the stunning stained glass panels throughout the mansion are not used to their full potential due to bad placement. For example, the most expensive stained glass panel (which features crystals designed to spread a rainbow of colour across the room when hit by the sun) was placed in a room directly facing an external wall, never glistening in the sunlight as it was designed to do. I guess that's what happens when you leave your architectural decisions to spirits!

Some of the stained glass can be seen in the top windows 

The mansion boasts a large number of windows

In 1906 the mansion sustained much damage when the great earthquake hit. At the time the mansion had been seven storeys tall with a tower. The tower was badly damaged and later removed leaving the mansion standing at its current four storeys. The front section of the mansion sustained quite a lot of damage as well. Rather than rebuilding these rooms, Mrs Winchester took it as a sign that the spirits were not happy with the excessive spending on this part of the mansion. She had the rubble and furniture removed and then boarded up this section. As a result, the front part of the mansion serves as a great reminder of the damage caused by the earthquake. The fact that the mansion was built with a floating foundation saved it from a worse fate during the earthquake.

This whole front section was boarded up after the 1906 earthquake

When Mrs Winchester passed away in 1922 work on the mansion immediately stopped. Nails were left half driven into walls and rooms partly built. Mrs Winchester was reported to have paid her staff daily in cash and with her death their pay would stop immediately. Therefore the work also stopped immediately. To help visitors identify these sections that were under construction at the time of Mrs Winchester's death they have been painted black on the exterior.

The interior of the mansion is amazing to see however photography is not allowed so you'll just have to take my word for it. Or check out the official photo gallery by clicking here.

Throughout the month of December the mansion is decked out in Christmas decor. Although Christmas had already been and gone by the time we visited the decorations were still up. As were the numerous Christmas trees. I had been a little worried that Lola would get bored during the 65 minute tour (and indeed she was a little grizzly, mostly due to slamming her fingers in the car door just before we entered) however keeping an eye out for the elaborately decorated Christmas trees kept her amused. Ava was really intrigued with the story of the mansion and enjoyed seeing the little oddities throughout. She was keen to keep up with our tour guide and hear as much of Mrs Winchester's story as possible.

After we'd completed the tour inside the mansion we headed out into the gardens to explore the exterior. It's easy to see from the outside what a higgeldy-piggeldy structure much of the mansion is, with strange little rooms jutting out all over the place. The girls enjoyed running around the gardens and especially enjoyed the giant lollypops they bought in the gift shop before heading outside. You can see how much they enjoyed their lollypops just by looking at their rainbow coloured faces and teeth!

Lola's mouth is just as colourful as her lollypop!

Colourful smiles all round

So many little rooms

Not being able to take photos inside, I went a little overboard with taking photos of the exterior! Here are just a few of my favourites.

Beautiful shingles and turrets

One of the statues leading to the front door

Here comes Ava with her lollypop

Lola's lollypop didn't last long

The girls and I

Family shot

Perfectly manicured hedges line the garden

The sun was starting to set giving the palms a golden glow

Always a jump shot!

Kim and I really enjoyed visiting the Winchester Mystery House and it seems that it was a hit with the girls too. Ava has asked several times since our visit if we can go to another Winchester Mystery House and Lola has asked to go back to the "Winchestemy" House!

If you enjoy visiting historic sites or if you're interested in ghost stories then the Winchester Mystery House is a must see destination in the Bay Area.


  1. Thanks for the low-down. I've only been once in college, but it was too $$ for me then, so I just toured the grounds. We'll definitely put this on our family must visit list!

    1. It is a little pricey (I think it was just over $90 for us and our youngest was free!) but it's definitely an interesting place to visit. I just wish I could have taken photos of the inside.


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