Monday, January 31, 2011

Winchester House



On September 30, 1862, Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Wirt Winchester, the only son of Oliver Winchester, owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

The couple had one daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester, who was born on July 12, 1866, but died after a few weeks from the childhood disease marasmus. Sarah fell into a deep depression following the death of her daughter, and the couple had no more children. Oliver Winchester died in 1880, quickly followed in March of 1881 by William, who died of tuberculosis, giving Sarah approximately 50 percent ownership in the Winchester Company and an income of $1,000 a day. (This amount is roughly equivalent to $22,000 a day in 2008.)

According to the legends surrounding her, she felt that her family was cursed, and sought out spiritualists to determine what she should do. A medium, believed to be a psychic, allegedly told her that the Winchester family was cursed by the spirits of all the people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle, and she should move west to build a house for herself and the spirits. The medium is claimed to have told Sarah that if construction on the house ever stopped, she would die. In 1884, Sarah moved west to California and purchased an eight-room farmhouse under construction from Dr. Robert Caldwell. It stood on 161 acres of land in what is now San Jose, California. Immediately, she began spending her $20 million inheritance by renovating and adding more rooms to the house, with work continuing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the next 38 years. She was fascinated with the number 13 and worked the number into the house in many places. (There are thirteen bathrooms, windows have thirteen panes, thirteen chandeliers, and so forth.)


It estimated that 500 to 600 rooms were built, but because so many were redone, only 160 remain. This naturally resulted in some peculiar effects, such as stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that go nowhere and that open onto walls, and chimneys that stop just short of the roof.


We may never know for sure if Mrs. Winchester built her house to accommodate the spirits, but over the years the story has come down that she believed her life was unavoidably affected by departed souls. Presumably she wanted to be friendly with the ‘good’ spirits and avoid the ‘bad’ spirits – and the way to be friendly with the ‘good’ spirits, it seemed, was to build them a nice place to visit.


According to this theory, Mrs. Winchester accommodated the friendly spirits by giving them special attention. For example, it is said that there were only three mirrors in the entire house at the time of Mrs. Winchester’s death. Legend has it that spirits hate mirrors, since the sight of their reflection causes them to vanish.
This is why Mrs. Winchester’s servants and secretary reportedly used only hand mirrors or went without.

The mansion also contained a profusion of light sources, from gas jets and countless candles, to electric light bulbs. Supposedly spirits feel conspicuous and humiliated by shadows, since they cannot cast their own.

The outside of the mansion received nearly as much care and attention as the inside. The cast external fa├žade is bursting with Queen Anne Victorian architecture features like turrets, towers, curved walls, cupolas, cornices, and balconies, all outlined with finely detailed trim work.

When viewed from different angles, the towers, some topped by ornamental spires called finials, give the house a castle-like appearance. It’s an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship – marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least. Some of the architectural oddities may have practical explanations. For example, the switchback staircase, which has seven flights with forty-four steps, rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis was quite severe in her later years, and the stairway may have been designed to accommodate her disability. The miles of twisting hallways are made even more intriguing by secret passageways in the walls. Mrs. Winchester traveled through her house in a roundabout fashion, supposedly to confuse any mischievous ghosts that might be following her. Because of the mansion’s immense size, it contained forty-seven fireplaces and seventeen chimneys. One rambling section in particular, the Hall of Fires, was designed to produce as much heat as possible.


My Aunt used to take us to visit this magnificent house every summer. One of my children refused to go inside because she could feel the intruders, the ghosts from the past. I never saw any ghosts, but found the story intriguing all my life.

34 comments:

  1. What a great blog. I know we've all heard a legend about the house that never stopped being build, but I thought it was an urban legend. Thanks for clearing that up.

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  2. It really is an awesome place and the highlight of our summer trip every year.She was one weird lady, but creative. :)

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  3. Paisley--this is one of the most fascinitating stories I've ever heard. She must have been a firm believe in the spirit world to continue building contiuously on the house for 38 years. How perfectly weird.
    I'd love to see the house.I love to roam through historical homes, but I don't have much opportunity to do so. The photos are wonderful--they clearly show the richness and opulence of the home.
    Thanks for this story--I loved it. Celia

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  4. My husband and I spent a year between San Jose and San Francisco and toured this house. It's amazing. She had special places from which she could spy on the servants unnoticed. The woman had a lot of problems, but it's a beautiful house. She imported Italian painters to paint the doors stroke by stroke to look like a particular type of wood. I'd love to go through it again.

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  5. When I was a teenager my family and I had a tour of the house. I have fun memories of that trip.

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  6. I think I've heard about this house. Is this the house that has staircases and doors leading to no where? Totally freaks me out just thinking about it. I can't imagine visiting!

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  7. Paisley, what an amzing story. I hope I'll be able to visit that house the next time I go to California.

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  8. Mrs. Winchester had a psychic who guided her into believing the ghosts were angry by how many Indians were being killed by the Winchester rifle - that is why her child and husband were taken from her in death. She believed what the psychic said and therefore did the continual building to keep the spirits from coming after her. It doesn't make sense to me, but she did create something unusual and beautiful for us all to enjoy. :)

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  9. The gardens are also gorgeous, Caroline. I could have spent hours exploring if left on my own. The one thing I never forgot was the staircase with short steps that went to the ceiling and stopped.

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  10. Thanks for coming by, Paty. Isn't it amazing the things you remember from your childhood? It is a difficult place to forget with all the mystery and possible ghost sightings.

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  11. Hey Dee! Oh, no, it's a cool place to visit. Yes, she had doors on the second floor that opened into space and a door in one room that opened up and you dropped to the next floor. Doors that opened and there was a three inch space, fireplaces that had no chimneys because they stopped at the ceiling and one room with 13 fireplaces and only three chimneys. Yes, it is weird, but COOL.

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  12. Mona, I hope you do put Winchester House on your next tour to California. You'd never regret it.

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  13. I saw this house on one of the History Channel. That was one disturbed woman.

    Great post, Paisley!

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  14. Wow, what a beautiful house, one I'd definitely like to visit some day. Thanks for the great information about it.
    Sincerely, Debby Lee

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  15. Apparently, Susan, she would never allow her photo to be taken after all the seances. There is only one that someone took from the bushes. Yes, she was definitely weird.

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  16. Thank you, Debby Lee, for coming by and seeing this strange, but beautiful house. What I posted today is just a drop in the bucket of all the happenings there.

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  17. The only place I felt was creepy on our tour was the seance room. As for the rest of it, I was enchanted with the architecture, all of the light that came in, the Tiffany work and mirrors that caught and reflected the light. My opinion is the woman was crazier than a bed bug but had incredibly good taste. The house is gorgeous. Poor sad woman.

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  18. I agree with you, Betty. It makes you wonder if she had any friends and what were like - and, by friends I mean the human kind.

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  19. Excellent blog. I have wanted to go to the Winchester house for years! It's fascinating that anyone could believe what she did, but I guess we all believe things others might think are a little cookoo. lol

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  20. Hi Carla, Some day I'll take you to the Winchester House. :) It is amazing how different people can see life so differently than those we consider normal.

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  21. Paisley, your blog brought back memories of my visit to the Winchester House! I'll never forget seeing that place...was hoping I'd come across a ghost during the tour but we never did.

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  22. Thanks Marin. I looked in every corner trying to see a ghost as well. It's one of those places you don't forget. My kids went there a few months ago and brought a booklet back with so much info in it. It's sort of like Lizzie Borden and all the mysteries that can never be answered.

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  23. Super blog. Took the kids here once; it is unbelievable! I feel kinda bad for her, though, to have so many personal demons. I too would love to see this house again.

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  24. Wow! What a great story. I was fascinated with this tale. I would love to see this manison. Thanks for sharing. Linda

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  25. Great blog. I love old haunted houses. If I ever get back to California, I'd love to see this place.

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  26. Thanks, Tanya. I don't think you can ever see everything with one visit. Such an interesting place.

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  27. Thanks for coming by, Linda. I have a great imagination and can swear you can still hear the hammering while you're there. :)

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  28. Great Lynette. I hope you do get to see it. Even the gardens are worth walking through.

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  29. Paisley, thanks for sharing this fascinating post! I wonder if she used the same artisans or if the work was divided among many to "spread the wealth?"
    Did she deliberately move through the house in a roundabout fashion, or was she directionally challenged, like me. LOL
    Once again, you've added another Must See to my travel list.
    Loved it.

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  30. Paisley,
    I've never been to this house but have heard lots about it from my relatives in California. My daughter visited the house and was amazed. Thanks for the photos!

    Jeanmarie

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  31. Hi Sandra,

    I am not sure if Mrs. Winchester had certain contractors she used or not, but she had lots of them working all the time and over 38 years I am sure she spread lots of wealth. I think she must have moved around the house because she had lots of secret passageways and lots of ways of spying on her servants. I can't imagine any of them could have last too long.

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  32. Thanks Jeanmarie. I hope you have a chance to visit the house too. It's definitely an interesting place.

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  33. Hi Paisley--
    VERY COOL POST! I am sorry to be so late in commenting on this--lots going on. I have always wanted to go see this place after hearing about it, but I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go inside.
    Cheryl

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  34. Glad you could come by, Cheryl. It's really so cool and I can't see anything to be alarmed with, but my Swedish exchange daughter wouldn't go inside because she felt evil. I never did, but then it was just so amazing that I wanted to see more and more.

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