My parents are divorced, so from elementary school to high-school I spent my holiday breaks flying in and out of the San Jose airport. Four times a year, I lived a life filled with California things: rollercoasters and hot dogs, road trips under the redwoods, oysters and sourdough and fog and saltwater. Yet despite spending so much of my growing up in the vicinity of San Jose, I didn’t realize it was home to the Winchester Mystery House until just a few months ago.
This past weekend, I finally took a tour through the house’s supposedly haunted halls. Better late than never!
The Winchester Mystery House sounds, well, mysterious. One might (and I did) imagine the sprawling mansion in the middle of nowhere because at one point it was. Now, it breathes the air of shopping malls and other sleek, modern buildings that crowd palm-tree-infested photos — at times more Disneyland than Haunted Overload. Once you get inside, however, you forget the fresh coats of paint and the gift shop.
Inside, the Winchester House truly is a mystery.
Standing since 1884, the Queen Anne Style Victorian was the home of Sarah Winchester, who purchased land in California after the death of her high school sweetheart, William Winchester. From 1884 until her own death in 1922, Sarah kept the house in a state of constant construction, with horizontal and vertical expansions happening alongside more esoteric projects: doors that lead to a twenty-foot drop, cupboards that open into living suites (rarely) and walls (more often), and narrow staircases with tiny steps. Though maintenance keeps much of this tourist attraction fitted with unsightly fire sprinkler systems and unnervingly fresh coats of paint, many rooms still show a world dreamt up on the edge between progress and decay, building and destroying.
Legend has it that Sarah Winchester, perhaps adhering to the Spiritualist fashions of the time, sought advice from a medium when tuberculosis claimed her beloved. This medium instructed Sarah to leave her East Coast home and begin constructing a mansion that could never stop growing. A mansion that could house the angry spirits of those who lost their lives to the Winchester rifle — and keep them from taking hers. It’s this state of perpetuum mobile that makes the Winchester Mystery House what it is and saturates the anecdotes of its tour guides, which overflow with tales of ghost sightings and eager descriptions of where in the building the number thirteen repeats.
An interesting story, certainly. But is it true?
Frustratingly, there’s no way to know. Maybe Sarah Winchester kept building in order to provide jobs and lodging for her many employees, who became a sort of family to her. Possibly it’s lead exposure from the constant painting that made her “crazy,” not a fear of ghosts. My favorite theory is that self-taught Sarah, an architect when women could not be architects, simply loved building. In her younger days, as she traveled with her husband, she regularly made notes of styles she liked and later imported pieces from all over the world. The house is a love letter to architecture, not a perversion of it.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, or because of them, the Winchester Mystery House is a marvel. It’s survived multiple earthquakes better than other buildings in the area. What remains of the original fIxtures is gorgeous: ornate dust corners on the stairs, hand-painted silk wallpaper, and stunning stained-glass windows. And when these details contextualize the age and wildness of the house, something breathtaking happens.