Old House Idiosyncrasies #8–Sarah Winchester’s House


Winchester House, San Jose, California

Living in San Jose, California and being interested in all things Victorian, it would be impossible for me to ignore the largest Victorian house in the United States, the house built by Sarah Winchester. A recent article on the always interesting Atlas Obscura website which details some of the history of the Winchester House got me thinking about this architectural marvel.

The house, which is gaining some newfound notoriety because of the recently released movie, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, was Sarah Winchester’s home from 1884 until her death in 1922.  She moved west from New Haven, Connecticut a few years after the death of her husband John, one of the owners of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  As her husband’s heir, she received a generous inheritance, as well as a major share of the company.  She moved into a small farmhouse surrounded by orchards, and started adding on, building a home more suitable to her fortune and social standing.

That much is historical fact.  However, the popular legend, which started growing soon after her death, involves a spiritual medium who told Mrs. Winchester that she was being haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by Winchester rifles.  And that to appease the spirits, she would have to continue building non-stop.

A more likely explanation according to Mary Jo Ignoffo, author of “Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune” is that with essentially unlimited funds and an amateur’s interest in architecture, Sarah Winchester was dabbling in building her dream house.  Building, remodeling, rebuilding over the years (not quite continuously, though) resulted in doors that open to blank walls (when only one side of a wall was renovated),  stairs that rise to the ceiling and stop (when rooms were rearranged on the floor above), and doors that open to two story drops (when the floor was removed to let in more sunlight to the floor below) make sense to anyone who has ever renovated a house, especially someone with more enthusiasm than architectural skill.

Sara Winchester was a private person.  She doesn’t seem to have entertained–how could she have with the house constantly under construction.  The citizens of the small town of San Jose must have remarked about the wealthy eccentric woman and her building project. And in the vacuum of her refusal to comment on rumors and gossip, the legend of seances and spirits grew, and continued to grow after her death, when her beloved house was sold and opened as a tourist attraction.

Happily, the management appears to be toning down the “haunted house” legends usually told on tours of the “Winchester Mystery House” and concentrating on Sarah Winchester herself and her amazing architectural creation. And that, to my mind, is just as interesting as the ghost stories.

I was considering not going to see the Winchester movie, being that horror films are not my thing. However, I’ve heard good reviews of it since, though, and apparently the house comes off looking beautiful (some scenes were filmed in the house, some recreated in studio), and I generally like Helen Mirren, so I may end up seeing it despite my initial trepidations.

And I might even go tour the house again, if just to revel in the beauty of its Victorian extravagance.





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