Bereaved-widow-cum-spiritual architect Sarah Winchester started her house in San Jose in 1884 and carpenters worked for 24-hours-a-day on the place for the next 38-years until she died. Now known as "The Winchester Mystery House," it was meant to be a maze for the spirits that haunted Mrs. Winchester because she believed (or was led to believe) that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles were plaguing her as the only surviving recipient of the Winchester fortune (and what a great fortune it was: she received tax-free hundreds of thousands of 19th-century dollars every year until she died).
As a ghost maze, the house employed all sorts of structural oddities, including a stairway that ascends into the ceiling, a hallway that narrows down with only enough room for crawling through the last portion, and a seemingly endless number of tiny stairs (for her arthritis), doors (leading often to nothing, or, in one case, a 10-foot drop), and windows, like the one pictured here that is set into the floor and which looks down on the floor below.
Sarah was a suspicious and paranoid lady, obsessed with the number 13, which shows up everywhere in the house, and she had a seance room called "the blue room" from whence she could peer down upon and fire any servants in the kitchen who uttered her name. All of this building was supposedly initiated because a Boston psychic told her that she had to move to the West Coast and ceaselessly build a house or face immediate and terrible death from the ghosts.
The house sometimes attracts weirdos and students of the paranormal, but it struck me more as a portrait of a melancholy lady who was driven to madness by the loss of her husband and sixteen-week-old daughter. It makes sense, in a way, that she would mourn by hiding out in a maze of a house, filled with servants and laborers, that gets bigger around her daily. The world receded whenever the house expanded.
Indeed, she was notoriously shy: only one photograph of her survives, and even though she had an elaborate front room for entertaining, she never received guests. She even had a section of her house built so that her carriage could be driven into the house and she wouldn't have to go outside.
Today, the house sits uncomfortably in downtown San Jose around the corner from a few malls and across the street from an oddly theme-park-looking set of "mixed-used condos" called Santana Row, featuring all kinds of mall shopping set into the lower floors of condo buildings and manicured sidewalks. "Who would want to live in a mall?" I wondered aloud.
Anyway, if you visit the Winchester Mystery House, I recommend not shelling out the $24 required to go on the disappointing tour, where some of the stuff I've mentioned isn't even toured. There's not much else to see, so I guess what I'm saying in sum is "don't bother". In this case, as in others, the story is much more interesting than the reality we're invited to pay to visit.