Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Winchester Mystery House

Mystery turned out to be a recurring theme of our road trip, and the third major mystery we encountered was the Winchester Mystery House. Again, this was a place that Brad and I had visited, some 18+ years ago, while we were dating and we thought it a good time to take our kiddos. We were also blessed with the chance to spend this extra time hanging out with Brad’s youngest brother and his girlfriend.
It is an absolutely fascinating landmark and well worth the crazy high entry fees. It was $33 for adults and $30 for kids… and is not recommended for the very little or easily distracted. No strollers, and it is not handicapped accessible (gardens are therefore free to handicapped guests). There is a lot of walking, and stairs, and the tour involves a lot of listening to the (very interesting and informed) guides. Restless kids will not appreciate it. However, adults and kids with an appreciation of the odd, the mysterious, the possibility of ghosts, real history, turn-of-the-century technology, and architecture will LOVE this place!
DEFINITELY check out the link (above) to the official site. You can read an in-depth history, of the house and its builder, and it is a bizarre tale. It’s touching too. Mrs. Sarah Winchester was overcome by grief after losing both her young husband, and infant daughter. She consulted a psychic who told her to build a house for herself and the spirits who were killed by the Winchester rifle, and as long as she continued to build, the spirits would be appeased and she would live forever. Mrs. Winchester had inherited a vast fortune, so she left the Northeast, moved to San Jose, CA, and started to build. That was in 1884. She had the house under constant, 24 hour, construction, every day, until her death 38 years later. The mansion has 160 rooms, miles of rambling staircases, windows and amazingly beautiful details everywhere you look… and it is all very eccentric and bizarre.
Many of the windows are special stained glass and crystal designs by Tiffany, and a good number of them bear a spider web design that held significance to Mrs. Winchester. The number 13 is everywhere in this house as well: window panes, stairs, tiles, ceiling decor, etc.
Mrs. Winchester had a seance room in the home, near her main bedroom, where she would go every night to consult the spirits on plans for the house. Every morning she would emerge with new designs. Not only did she work on building this house up… she also tore down parts and remodeled rooms, constantly. Many of the rooms today are only half finished, and evidence can be seen of the works in progress, all of which stopped instantly upon her death.
A section of the home was damaged in the 1906 earthquake (an innovative floating foundation has been credited with keeping the home intact all these years) and Mrs'. Winchester took it as a sign from the spirits that she’d been spending too much time and money on the front of the house. It was nearly complete, which supposedly, upset the spirits. She had that part of the home boarded up. Never to be repaired.
The vines here (below) cover an area of the house where a chimney collapsed.
Mrs. Winchester had no training and many of the features of her home reflect that fact… or perhaps, as others suggest, she purposely built stairs that went nowhere, winding halls, chimneys that didn’t quite go all the way up, windows in the floors, and (as below) doors that open into thin air, to confuse the spirits. To make it harder for them to follow her around the house.  We heard a number of interesting accounts of reported ghost sightings and other stories of the house being haunted during the tour. We didn’t meet any ghosts though… probably for the best. DSC07938
It’s a lovely house and she poured millions of dollars into its construction. Her gardens are incredible as well.
Sorry, but I have no photos of the inside of the house. Not allowed. The furniture is not the original as it was sold by a niece after her death, and the house was pretty much abandoned as useless. Fortunately the house has been restored, furniture from the era donated, and photos are available on the website.
I found the level of detail in the home construction and its decoration to be awe-inspiring. Textured wallpapers, built in cabinets, inlaid wood floors (beautiful!), imported ceramics for the plumbing, chandeliers, baseboards, etc. I was also impressed by Mrs. Winchester’s use of modern (at that time) improvements. She had a mechanical car wash, push button gas lights, forced air heating, and not to mention, countless fireplaces.. she had severe arthritis and needed the heat. Her infirmity led her to build switchback staircases with the risers a bare inch or so in height… imagine a staircase with seven flights, 44 steps, that only goes up 9ft! She eventually installed 3 elevators in the home. She even constructed an elaborate ballroom, which was probably never used, for about $9000 – at that time, an entire house could be built for about $1000. The tour guides were very knowledgeable and explained the many interesting gadgets and technical details… not only pointing out what they were and how they worked, but they gave some historical background on these hardware features. It was very interesting, and Mrs. Winchester was ahead of her time in many ways.
We also took the “Behind the Scenes” tour that took us through the basement (massive!), stables, shops, and some of the farm buildings. In addition to inheriting her wealth, she also raised fruit trees and owned a large evaporator. Apparently, she was a most sought after employer. She paid very well and always had work. Of course, she also spied on her staff constantly, and was quick to fire those who displeased her. She could afford to be picky, but apparently was a good boss, as no-one bad-mouthed her regarding her eccentric behavior… even after her death. DSC07928 
The tour is worth the hefty price… proceeds go to upkeep and restoration…. and in the meantime, please do visit the website and read the history and details of this home.
Official website
Wiki page about the home


Emily said...

What an interesting house. It looks absolutely beautiful from the outside.

Connie said...

Hi Emily... it is stunning! Inside and out... although much of the inside is half-done, or half undone, as the case might be. The tour was lengthy, plus the additional tour we added on top, but seriously, you could spend days (well, I could... I love stuff like this...) in the house and still miss interesting details of the construction.

Jen said...

Wow, you guys did everything this summer! This was on our list, but never managed to make it there...maybe the next time we are in CA? Glad to know it's worth it!

Connie said...

Jen - I mentioned (above) that mystery was a recurring theme of our trip, but honestly "Take a road trip and stop at ALL of the interesting stuff on the way" was the real theme. We made sure to pull off at overlooks, pick more interesting restaurants, we even hit a cheese factory tour (in Loletta). We thought the kids were due for a heaping dose of Americana! And yes, beside wanting to share the fun that we had, I hope my little reviews will be helpful for others considering a visit :) Only thing I could add to this one, is try to look for specials or sales before you go. Tickets at the gate are steep, even if it is for a good cause.