SAN JOSE, Calif. — No one knows for certain why Sarah Winchester, heiress to the gun company fortune, spent 38 years building a lavish Victorian mansion that was never finished, incorporating all manner of architectural oddities such as secret passageways, staircases that end at ceilings, and doors that open onto solid walls or thin air. The story goes that a Boston medium advised her to build — but never finish — the house to appease the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle, especially Native Americans. But she had also lost an infant daughter and a husband, and some believe the frenetic construction, influenced by what she thought were messages from beyond, may have been a form of grieving.
With its towers and turrets, séance room, spider web motifs, and repetition of the number 13, the Winchester House hits its stride at Halloween, but this year two significant events are likely to draw even more visitors than usual, said Tim O’Day, director of marketing. In May the attraction opened 40 rooms, hallways, and other spaces never before open to the public, as the Explore More Tour, which guests may add to the traditional tour of 110 rooms (there are 160 rooms in the mansion). And in February 2018 CBS Films will release “Winchester,’’ a biopic based on Sarah Winchester’s life, starring Helen Mirren.
In 1884, three years after her husband’s death, Winchester bought a farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley, then hired a team of carpenters and craftsmen to expand it. Construction continued 24 hours a day, stopping only upon her death in 1922. Money was no object — she had inherited $20 million in cash and stock. The house had indoor plumbing, an elevator, 47 fireplaces, silver and bronze inlaid doors, and hand-laid parquet floors. Hand-painted wallpaper came from Japan. Daisy-motif stained glass windows came from Vienna.
The séance room, where Winchester is said to have communicated with spirits and received advice on construction, is in the center of the house. There is one entrance to this room and three exits; one exit is via the entrance door, another exit door leads to an 8-foot fall, and the third exit door has no latch on the other side, preventing re-entry.
In the grand ballroom, the central chandelier, imported from Germany, originally had 12 glass lamps, but Winchester had one more added to make the magic 13. Elsewhere, a chimney rises four stories, but stops just short of the ceiling, making all four fireplaces connected to it unusable. Then there are the cupboards: The smallest cupboard in the house opens onto a solid wall. Opposite it, the largest opens onto the entire back of the house.
Be sure to visit the beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens for the best views of the mansion’s elaborate Queen Anne exterior, with its turrets, towers, cupolas, cornices, and balconies.
Sarah Winchester is buried next to her husband and daughter in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven. Whatever her motivation for building her mysterious house, she left a treasure that is both a feast for the eye and a source of endless fascination about the mind behind it.
WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE, 525 South Winchester Blvd., San Jose, Calif., 408-247-2101, winchestermysteryhouse.com.