Chris A. Hale
For several years, I’ve experienced a recurring dream that has puzzled me as I’ve searched for understanding or hidden meanings. In this dream, I’m wandering the halls of a large house that I’ve always, until recently, assumed is mine. As I walk through the halls, I’m delighted to find new rooms I’ve never known existed.
I’ve always wanted to believe this enormous house was destined to be mine in a future reality, a promise of my impending fortune, status and influence.
My wife, Kim, however, thinks it has more of a metaphorical meaning, that it refers to windows of my soul and finding out more about who I am inside.
I like my explanation better, but don’t tell her that.
After spending a day in San Jose, California, I am convinced, despite what Kim says, that my interpretation has the possibility of being correct. There are literally homes large enough for a person to get lost in.
Nestled right in the middle of San Jose, no more than a stone’s throw from the international airport, is the Winchester Mystery House.
The history of the home, and that of its builder, Sarah Winchester, is one that borders on extremely unusual and incredibly bizarre.
Sarah, at age 40, inherited the Winchester Rifle fortune when her husband, William Wirt Winchester, passed away in 1881 of tuberculosis. Having previously suffered the loss of their infant daughter, Annie, 15 years earlier to the childhood disease marasmus, Sarah became depressed and was rumored to have sought the counsel of a spiritualist in Boston, not an uncommon practice during the Victorian era.
The medium told Sarah that the spirits of all the people killed by her husband’s gun, the rifle that won the west, were responsible for the deaths of her loved ones. He also told her she needed to move out west and build a never-ending house to appease them.
And so, in 1888, that is what she did. After purchasing an eight-room, unfinished farmhouse with her inheritance of $1,000 a day, she began to build. Incidentally, $1,000 a day in 1888 is roughly the equivalent of $25,000 a day in today’s economy.
Over the course of 38 years, she spent more than $5.5 million to hire workers to build up and tear down and rebuild the house, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At its highest, it reached seven stories, but it is currently only four. The infamous earthquake of 1906 destroyed many parts of the structure, which is evident when walking through the 160 surviving rooms.
And those strange rooms are really hard to comprehend.
For example, right at the beginning of our organized tour, there is a staircase that goes directly up into the ceiling and a door that opens up to reveal only a wall.
There is also a second-story door that opens to the outside with a long drop to the ground below.
Even more baffling is a window that looks through the floor of a second-story room into a first-floor kitchen and closets that have storage only an inch deep.
What exactly was Sarah Winchester thinking?
One of the narratives explains that Sarah was trying to confuse the spirits that were after her. Another story reasons that she had a séance every night and received instruction from these spirits where and what she should build next.
Or maybe the stairway into the ceiling was used to enter the next floor up but was later built over. The doorway to nowhere possibly had a room on the other side that was torn down by one of her carpenters or by nature.
No matter what explanation you choose to believe, the existing structure is really a must-see.
Kim was impressed with the Tiffany stained-glass windows and rolls of unused William Morris wallpaper in storage. Between the glass and the wallpaper, the value is enough to put the entire BYU football and basketball teams through four years of college. Heck, throw in the cheerleaders and the Cougar Marching Band, and there would still be much more than enough.
My lasting impression of the house was seeing the Victorian influence of architecture give way to Craftsman as the construction passed from one century to the next.
I also found it interesting the house had low-rising steps that sometimes traversed back and forth several times just to ascend one floor. This is best explained by understanding Sarah was under five feet tall and the low risers were convenient for her arthritis.
She also must have had an affinity for the number 13 because it can be found virtually everywhere in the house. From the number of drain holes in a sink to the number of coat hooks on a wall, the use of 13 is not coincidental.
The house also has three elevators and one of the first showers ever in existence, although Sarah died before it could ever be used.
Old photos show the remains of a chimney that once had a window right in the center with a view outside. Unfortunately, the chimney was damaged during the earthquake, and the window is no longer there.
At the time of Sarah’s death in 1922, several parts of the house were unfinished, and they are now painted black so visitors can see what was being worked on when construction finally stopped.
All in all, the house is really extraordinary and comes highly recommended by this travel writer.
Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline and has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time, he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at chrisahale.com.
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