San Jose, CA: Winchester Mystery House
We had a short drive to our next stop in Pleasanton, CA, and we pulled into the Alameda County Fairgrounds a little after noon. Alameda County Fairgrounds Campground has full hookups including free Wi-Fi. The photo below shows our site at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
Roads are paved and sites are a mixture of gravel and dirt. Actually, the material on the sites looked more like ground up, reclaimed asphalt paving material, so it really was pretty dirty. Sites are narrow as with most fairgrounds, but the campground was less than half filled when we were there, and most sites had an empty space between.
Pleasanton is a little over half an hour from San Jose, and the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose turned up in our research of things to see in the area. Sarah Winchester began construction of the house in 1884 upon the death of her husband William Wirt Winchester. Sarah Winchester was the wealthy heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune. Carpenters and craftsmen worked on the house continuously (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for 38 years until the widow's death. The house has so many strange design features, it became known as the Mystery House.
The house is Queen Anne Victorian mansion with approximately 160 rooms. The photo below shows the front of the house.
Indoor toilets, push-button gas lights, forced-air heating, three elevators (two hydraulic and one electric), and an indoor shower with heated water are some of the conveniences in the house that were rare for the time. The cost of the 38-year building project is estimated at $5.5 million. This is the equivalent of about $70 million today. The reason Mrs. Winchester was able to afford to build such an extravagant house with all those modern conveniences was she inherited about $20 million cash plus a 50% interest in the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. when her husband died. This provided her with an income of approximately $1,000 per day (equivalent to about $21,000 a day today).
At Winchester House, you can take a guided house tour that also includes a self-guided tour of the gardens and out buildings. You can also take a behind-the-scenes tour that takes you into some of the rooms and out buildings that are not accessible on the regular tour. The basement is also included with the behind-the-scenes tour. We opted for the combo tour that included everything.
Mrs. Winchester became so distraught after the death of her husband that she consulted with a medium. The psychic is rumored to have told Mrs. Winchester the family was cursed because of all the people killed by her husband's rifles, and that Mrs. Winchester should build a house for herself and all the spirits who had died. The psychic also told her she should never stop building.
When we started the tour, we quickly realized there was no master plan for the house. Rooms seem to have been added on a whim. Later room additions block windows and doors from rooms that were built previously. The photo below shows a stairway to nowhere. You can see the joists of the floor above running across the top of the stairway.
And the next photo is a door to nowhere. It exits the house about 12 feet above the ground.
The house rambles on so much some servants had to have maps so they wouldn't get lost. In the next photo taken from an upper-story balcony, you can see many of the roofs, angles, and skylights at various levels and running in all directions.
Some say Mrs. Winchester built the house with so many rooms and passages and with doors and windows that went nowhere to confuse the angry spirits from the people who died because of her husband's guns. The more likely explanation is she closely controlled all the design and construction, but she didn't really know much about the mechanics of it. If something didn't work out, she simply had the workmen build around it rather than ripping it out and correcting the problem. Unlike William Randolph Hearst, Sarah Winchester did not have an architect to make plans and drawings and to do the engineering. There were never any plans or drawings for Winchester House, only sketches sometimes done on tablecloths.
The house started out as eight-room farm house that was under construction. Mrs. Winchester bought the property. The house and the barn of that original farm house were quickly and completely absorbed into her mansion.
Winchester House was taller at one time, but an earthquake in 1906 brought down the seven-story tower. The house has only four stories today. Several rooms in the front of the house were damaged when the tower fell, so Mrs. Winchester had the workmen close off all the damaged rooms rather than repair them.
The house has approximately 160 rooms, but the exact number is uncertain. The floor plan is so confusing, every time a count is taken, the number comes up different. There are 47 fireplaces, approximately 40 bedrooms, 5 or 6 kitchens, and two ballrooms (one was never completed). The house is 24,000 square feet and takes over 20,000 gallons of paint to paint the outside of the entire structure.
Today, there isn't much furniture in the house and none of it is original. When Mrs. Winchester died in 1922, she left the furniture to her niece, who lived in the house with her as a companion and assistant. The Winchesters only had one child - a daughter who died in 1866 when she was only a few weeks old. The niece kept what furniture she wanted and sold the rest. They hauled away eight truck-loads of furniture and personal belongings a day for six and a half weeks before the house was empty.
One of the features Mrs. Winchester included in her house were plenty of Tiffany stained-glass windows. There is a storage room in what used to be the barn of the original farm house where numerous stained glass windows and doors are on display.
Mrs. Winchester's bedroom is shown in the next photo. She died in this room in 1922 at the age of 83.
The next photo shows the conservatory. The floor under the wood decking is galvanized to resist rust. Flower pots would be placed on the floor to be watered from a hose. The water would run across the floor, which had a slight slope, and run out into the garden to water some of the plants there.
Even though Sarah Winchester never had any guests, the house had two ballrooms, and the photo below shows the one that is finished. It has doweled paneling, a carved ceiling, and a chandelier imported from Germany. The chandelier has 13 candles on it. Thirteen was Mrs. Winchester's favorite number and it is used frequently throughout the house.
The tour of the house takes over an hour and covers about a mile of rooms, hallways, passages, and stairs. Following the house tour, we went on the behind-the-scenes tour. The tour took us into several of the out buildings and to a few rooms of the house that we didn't see on the regular house tour. Then the tour went to one of the two basements. The basement is low and we had to wear hard hats.
The next photo shows the coal-fired boiler that was used to heat the house.
After the behind-the-scenes tour, we spent a little time strolling around the garden. Although there were many beautiful flowers, we particularly liked the lace cap hydrangeas.
We have more to see in the area, but it was getting a little late, so we headed back to the motor home. Look for our next post to see what else we were up to.