The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California was was the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Winchester. To ward off spirits, Winchester hired laborers to constantly build and renovate the mansion 24 hours a day for 38 years. Today it is renowned for its size and its architectural curiosities. It is also reportedly very haunted.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee, the daughter of Leonard Pardee and his wife Sarah W. Burns, was born in 1839 in New Haven, Connecticut. When she grew up she stood just 4 feet 10 inches tall and was known for her beauty and her sparkling personality. In September 30, 1862, Sarah married William Winchester, the son of the manufacturer of the famous Winchester Repeating Rifle.
They had one child, Annie Pardee, who died about a month after her birth. Then, about 15 years later, on March 7, 1881, William Winchester died of tuberculosis.
Deeply saddened by the deaths of her daughter Annie in 1866 and her husband in 1881, Sarah consulted a psychic. She was told that there was a curse upon the Winchester family because the guns they made had taken so many lives. The psychic went on to tell her that the spirits of those killed were seeking vengeance and that in order to save her own life, Sarah was to build a home for herself and the spirits — a home that would never be finished. She was also told that the home was to be situated in the west where the sun sets.
After her husband’s death, Sarah Winchester inherited more than $20.5 million (equivalent to $496,344,828 in 2016) as well as nearly 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. This gave her an income of roughly $1,000 per day, the equivalent of about $23,000 a day in 2017. This made her one of the wealthiest women in the world at that time. Her inheritance would easily enable her buy property and fund ongoing construction.
She then left her home in New Haven, Connecticut, moved out west and settled in what is now San Jose, California, where she purchased an unfinished eight room farmhouse from a Dr. Caldwell in 1884. She then began her continuous construction. She hired builders, carpenters, and laborers who worked on the house day and night until it became a seven story mansion. She did not use an architect and added on to the building in a haphazard fashion. Construction continued without interruption, from 1884 until her death in September, 1922. The cost for this eccentric undertaking has been estimated at about $5.5 million.
Lacking no specific plan, other than those she received from the spirits, the beautiful but bizarre 161
room mansion includes stairs and doors that lead to nowhere; more bedrooms, kitchens and fireplaces than anyone could use in a lifetime; hidden trap doors, spy holes, secret passageways, and upside-down columns. Other curiosities include windows overlooking other rooms, cabinets and doors that open into walls, small rooms built within big rooms, balconies and windows on the inside rather than out, chimneys that stop short of the ceiling, and floors with skylights.
Additionally, Sarah was intrigued by the number “13”. Nearly all of the windows contain 13 panes of glass; the walls had 13 panels; the greenhouse had 13 cupolas; many of the wooden floors contained 13 sections; some of the rooms had 13 windows, the mansion has 13 bathrooms, and many of the staircases had 13 steps. She was also seemingly obsessed with spider web designs that appear in a number of windows as well as on fireplace grates within the mansion.
Overall, the Winchester House is a Queen Anne Victorian with a mixture of shingles, sidings, bric-a-brac, cornices and accessories which show traces of definite eastern influence in design not found in local craftsmen.
Before the 1906 earthquake, the house was seven stories high, but today it is only four stories. At the time of the quake, the top three floors of the house, several cupolas, and the home’s original seven-story Observation Tower collapsed into the gardens below and were never rebuilt.
It is estimated that approximately 20,500 US gallons of paint were required to paint the house 24,000-square-foot mansion. There are roughly 161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms, nine kitchens and a séance room. There are also 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, two basements and three elevators.
The home’s conveniences were rare at the time of its construction, some of which included steam and forced-air heating, modern indoor toilets and plumbing, a telephone, a dumb waiter, electric lights serviced by the estate’s own gas manufacturing plant, and push-button gas lights. The home even had a annunciator that allowed Sarah to summon her servants and indicate to them where she was in building.
The adornments were lavish including numerous stained glass windows created by the Tiffany Company, gold and silver chandeliers, and hand-inlaid parquet floors and trim
In her determination to build and build, she lived her life in almost complete solitude. And to further confuse the spirits, she slept in a different bedroom every night.
On September 5, 1922, Sarah died in her sleep of heart failure at the age of 83. All of her possessions, with the exception of the house, were bequeathed to her niece and personal secretary. Sarah made no mention of the mansion in her will, and appraisers considered the house worthless due to damage caused by the earthquake, the unfinished design and the impractical nature of its construction.
The building was sold at auction to a local investor for over $135,000, and subsequently 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. Today the home is owned by Winchester Investments LLC, a privately held company representing the descendants of John and Mayme Brown. Today, the mansion, which sits on just 4.5 acres, is open for public tours.
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