The Winchester Mystery House™
Beautiful but Bizarre!
Winchester Mystery House™ is an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship – marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least. Tour guides must warn people not to stray from the group or they could be lost for hours! Countless questions come to mind as you wander through the mansion – such as, what was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?
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 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.
This wild and fanciful description of Mrs. Winchester’s nightly prowl to the Séance Room appeared in The American Weekly in 1928, six years after her death:
“When Mrs. Winchester set out for her Séance Room, it might well have discouraged the ghost of the Indian or even of a bloodhound, to follow her. After traversing an interminable labyrinth of rooms and hallways, suddenly she would push a button, a panel would fly back and she would step quickly from one apartment into another, and unless the pursuing ghost was watchful and quick, he would lose her. Then she opened a window in that apartment and climbed out, not into the open air, but onto the top of a flight of steps that took her down one story only to meet another flight that brought her right back up to the same level again, all inside the house. This was supposed to be very discomforting to evil spirits who are said to be naturally suspicious of traps.”
The House Built By The Spirits.
Winchester’s Building Methods
According to legend, Mrs. Winchester enacted a nightly séance to help with her building plans and for protection from “bad” spirits. While she sometimes drew up simple sketches of the building ideas, there were never any blueprints….or building inspectors! In the morning, she would meet with John Hansen, her dutiful foreman, and go over new changes and additions.
During the early years of construction, this resulted in some awkward and impractical concepts such as columns being installed upside down – though some suggest this was done deliberately to confuse the evil spirits.
But this is how the Winchester Mystery House™ became known as “the house built by the spirits.” John Hansen stayed with Mrs. Winchester for many years, redoing scores of rooms, remodeling them one week and tearing them apart the next.
It is doubtful whether John Hansen ever questioned his boss. Mrs. Winchester may have been trying to confuse evil spirits, or simply making mistakes, but there were no budget ceilings or deadlines to meet. This resulted in many features being dismantled, built around, or sealed over. Some rooms were remodeled many times. It is estimated that 500 rooms 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!
Once a room was completed, and most importantly, not targeted for further alterations, it was adorned with some of the best furnishings money could buy. Mrs. Winchester appreciated beauty, and she was a woman with exquisite taste. Freight cars loaded with gold and silver plated chandeliers, imported Tiffany art glass windows then valued up to $1,500 each, German silver and bronze inlaid doors at twice that amount, Swiss molded bathtubs, rare precious woods like mahogany and rosewood, and countless other items were docked onto a side track at San Jose. Everything was then transported to the house where much of the material was never even installed. At the time of Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1922, there were rooms full of ornate treasures still waiting to find a niche in the massive home.
Among the most remarkable features of the house are the parquet floors. One craftsman worked for thirty-three years doing nothing but building, installing, and tearing up the floors! They are made of mahogany, rosewood, teak, maple, oak and white ash, arranged in impressive mosaics. Mrs. Winchester’s favorite bedroom, the one in which she died, has a notably special floor. It is laid so that the sunlight streaming through the windows appears to change the dark strips to light, and then back again, when viewed from the opposite ends of the room.
Though Mrs. Winchester could be very frugal in her approach to building, at times she was extravagant as a person could be. The mansion’s dazzling art glass windows are a good example of her exquisite taste. Many were made to order in Austria and imported by Tiffany’s of New York. They are spectacularly designed, utilizing both concave and convex glass “frames” inset with glittering “jewels.” Mrs. Winchester herself designed the special daisy and spiderweb patterns that are embedded in many of the window. The daisy was her favorite flower, and some believe the spiderweb pattern had a special occult meaning for her.
The finest cabinetmakers toiled for years, using richly polished woods, to create built-in chests with deep drawers and tremendous bins and lockers. Inside were stored the rarest satins and silks; hand-embroidered linens from China, Ireland, and the Philippines; and bolt upon bolt of elegantly woven cloth from Persia and India. Legend has it that Mrs. Winchester bought whole bolts of material so that nobody else in the valley would have the same pattern.
Hall of Fires
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 – perhaps to ease Mrs. Winchester’s extreme arthritis. In addition to many windows that let the sunlight stream through, the three adjoining rooms have four fireplaces and three hot air registers from the coal furnace in the basement.
The Grand Ballroom
Mrs. Winchester’s elegant Grand Ballroom is built almost entirely without nails. It cost over $9,000 to complete at a time when an entire house could be built for less than $1,000! The silver chandelier is from Germany, and the walls and parquet floor are made of six hardwoods – mahogany, teak, maple, rosewood, oak, and white ash.
The most curious element of the Grand Ballroom are the two leaded stained glass windows, each inscribed with a quote from Shakespeare. The first, “Wide unclasp the table of their thoughts,” is from Troilus and Cressida (IV:5:60). The lines are spoken by Ulysses, and refer to Cressida’s sometimes flirting nature. The second, “These same thoughts people this little world,” is from Richard II (V:5:9). The imprisoned Richard means that his thoughts people the small world of his confinement. Nobody knows for certain what these lines meant to Mrs. Winchester. While they apparently held some special meaning for Mrs. Winchester, their significance remains a mystery today.
Ironically, the ballroom was probably never used to hold a ball. According to one story, Mrs. Winchester once heard that a celebrated orchestra was performing in San Francisco. She invited the musicians to play at her home, but scheduling conflicts prevented the visit. In any case, Mrs. Winchester sealed off the ballroom after the earthquake of 1906.
The 1906 Earthquake
If Mrs. Winchester took precautions to enlist the aid of friendly spirits, they were nevertheless unable to protect her from the Great San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake of 1906. The quake registered 8.3 on the Richter scale and stretched all the way from Oregon to Los Angeles. It severely damaged Mrs. Winchester’s home, toppling the seven-story Observation Tower and some cupolas. She herself was badly shaken, trapped in her favorite Daisy Bedroom near the front of the mansion. It took servants several hours to locate her and then pry open the bedroom door and rescue her.
Its is said that Mrs. Winchester felt the earthquake was a warning from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front section of the house, which was nearing completion. After having the structural damage repaired, she immediately ordered the front thirty rooms – including the Daisy Bedroom, Grand Ballroom, and the beautiful front doors – sealed up.
The heavy, ornate front doors, which had been installed just prior to the earthquake, had only been used by three people – Mrs. Winchester and the two carpenters who installed them.
The outside of the mansion received nearly as much care and attention as the inside. The cast external facade is bursting with Queen Anne Victorian architecture feature like turrets, towers, curved walls, cupolas, cornices, and balconies, all outlined with finely detailed trimwork.
When viewed from different angles, the towers, some topped by ornamental spires called finials, give the house a castlelike appearance.
A House Built For Spirits?
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” spirit, 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.
Was Mrs. Winchester making a special effort to please her spirits companions?
In any case, for nearly thirty-eight years, the round-the-clock sawing, sanding, and hammering at the Winchester Mystery House™ never ceased – not even on weekends or holidays. It was never a rush job. Mrs. Winchester had all the time in the world – at least, all the time needed to maintain a steady pace. With her financial freedom, she was content to honor whatever whims came from her imagination and from the spirits she believed were guiding her.
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