The Victorian Aesthetic Legacy of Sarah Winchester

One of America’s most famous mansions may draw crowds for the invisible occupants, but the real magnificence is in the visible: those Victorian-era architectural trimmings. After all, the Winchester Mystery House has preserved items that pre-date, and survived the 1906 earthquake.

Questions & Answers

You Asked Them – We Answered Them!

@Kim Raymond Kowalczyk

Q: Is there anything written by Sarah about what she was doing or why? Did she keep records or just go with feelings?

A: If Sarah kept any sort of diary, we don’t have it. All her personal papers were left to her niece, Marion Marriott, and sadly, we have no idea what happened to them. There are letters showing the frequent and detailed correspondence between her and her lawyer, Samuel Leib, which History San Jose is in possession of. Sarah was a very smart and businesslike lady!

@Dina Kae Marseline

Q: Tours used to display more superstitious items such as napkins with daisy patterns, spider webs, and other designs, as well as kitchen items such as silverware. What happened to those items?

A:  Occasionally we refurbish displays, taking things out for restoration or maintenance, but the house still contains fabrics, woodwork, windows, and other items decorated with daisies, spider webs, etc, since these were such popular motifs during the Aesthetic Movement of the late 1800s, when Sarah built and decorated her home.


Q: When and why was the exterior paint color scheme changed to the current Red/Tan? I heard on the Explore More tour once that the mansion exterior was originally a different color.

A: Sarah started with an already existing house, and we aren’t sure about the very earliest colors of the place, as Eastman Kodak’s “Kodachrome” color film was not available until 1935.

But the current colors are not far off from the ones that Sarah used.  There are many surviving sections of the mansion that haven’t been painted since Sarah’s time: outer walls that became inner walls during remodeling projects, but were never finished, for example. Some areas show a light-yellow color on the clapboards, and there was a lot of greyish-green (a little less olive colored than the current green). The earliest door and window frames were painted a brownish-red, almost burgundy color, which was later covered by a very dark charcoal toned paint—very somber, but elegant! Tinted postcards from Sarah’s time show this same yellow and gray-green color scheme, as well as the red roof!

@Nicholas Fortin

Q: Is there a basement?

A: There are two! The largest basement is a significant piece of the Explore More Tour at the Winchester Mystery House. The other basement is primarily used for storage purposes for our gift shop. Come see the basement in all of its spookiness on the Explore More Tour.


Q: Did they film the Winchester movie at the actual Winchester house?

A: Yes! They filmed at the house for several days with Hellen Mirren and Jason Clarke. Much of the outside and internal shots of the house were filmed here. The film was also shot in Australia. 


Q: How many rooms are in the house? How many of those rooms do I get to see on tour?

A: There are 160 rooms in the house. On the Mansion Tour you will see about 110 of the 160 rooms, and the Explore More Tour visits the attic, basement, and some of the more hidden areas of the house.

@Rhonda Stawp Long

Q: Is there anyone who is allowed access to the WHOLE house?

A: As in Sarah’s days, the estate’s staff have access to many parts of the house.


Q: Will guests ever get to stay overnight in the actual house?

A: Though a popular request, we are not open for overnight stays at this time.

@Jeremy Etienne

Q: Is there an itemized list of the belongings that were found in the house, when she passed? Particularly what books were in her libraries?

A: There is a list of the more important items in the home, for probate purposes, but it didn’t include details like books, unfortunately. But we can make some good guesses! Sarah almost certainly enjoyed Shakespeare, since she had quotes from two of his plays included in her Ballroom windows. We also have some illustrated books on gardening in California that once belonged to Sarah—she loved gardening!

A Moving Day

Let’s pretend for a moment. Imagine it’s April 18. The sun has yet to rise on this Wednesday morning. In fact, it’s so early that, unless you’re a farmer, you’re asleep. And, although it’s early spring, the weather has been hotter than normal over the past week in San Jose, California.

Your alarm clock is set to ring at 7 a.m., but it isn’t going to wake you today. The earth is. That’s because we’re imagining not a day in the future but one in the past. We’re time traveling to April 18, 1906 when the clock strikes 12 minutes after five. It’s then that a loud noise rips you from your dreams into a scene equally unreal: mayhem. The ordinarily sturdy structures that you depend on for their stability and support are being tossed about. Floorboards buckle. Plaster from the walls crumbles. Bricks from chimneys tumble. Your water glass slides off the night table, shattering to the floor. Your bed bounces you like it’s a trampoline. It’s as if the house is falling. It is—it has.

Vintage Exterior April 18, 1906

In about 60 seconds, the intense shaking stops. The shouts and screams are clearer, the creaks and groans continue. As you feel your way through your dark room where nothing is where it used to be, you realize that the only way out, the bedroom door, is pinched shut. You are trapped.

According to legend, Sarah Paradee Winchester, the grand dame of the Winchester Mystery House, who was asleep in the Daisy Bedroom, is eventually rescued from the bedroom by a servant who pries open the door with a crowbar.

The native East Coaster wasn’t a stranger to temblors, the small shakes of California life: a book falling off a shelf, a rattling in the China cabinet, a piece of art lopsided. While she had heard the stories from those who lived through the “Great San Francisco Quake” in October 1868, they seemed fantastical. She didn’t live here then.

On April 18, a new Great San Francisco Quake was christened with the slip of the San Andreas Fault. The 1906 Earthquake, a 7.8 on the Richter scale, was 16 times more powerful than 1868’s 7.0. Because the Richter scale is logarithmic rather than linear—and that concept is complex, USGS has created the aptly named “How much bigger…?” calculator. You’ll also find that the 1906 was 22 times stronger than the Loma Prieta in 1989.

In the days that followed, news would have reached the Winchester Mystery House via broadsheets and announcements that papered San Jose. Here’s what you might have read:

Newspaper Clipping - San Fran Earthquake

“San Francisco Annihilated”

“Many square miles in San Francisco are reduced to smoldering mass of blazing debris.”

San Jose Mercury & Herald

“Half of San Francisco is Now in Ashes. Total Destruction of City Probable.”

-New York American

“Scores of the demented escaped from the boundaries of the institution and are wandering, many half clad, about the surrounding country.”

-Santa Cruz Sentinel

(The biggest loss of life in the Santa Clara Valley was at Agnews State Asylum, about 7 miles from Sarah’s house.)

Newspaper Clipping - San Jose Earthquake


NOTICE IS GIVEN that any person found

Pilfering, Stealing, Robbing, or committing

any act of Lawless Violence will be summarily


-San Jose Vigilance Committee  

Sarah’s spirits crumble

At the Winchester Estate, the northern wing of the house was crumbling. And so were Sarah’s spirits. “She lost heart after that. Her life’s work was a shambles,” says house historian Janan Boehme. “She didn’t tear it down, but she never restored it to what it had been. She did what was necessary to make the structure safe and water-tight, then stopped.”

Vintage Exterior

In the immediate aftermath, Sarah moved to her houseboat in the mudflats of Burlingame. You can’t get closer to the ground than this.

Although Sarah did return to Llanada Villa, she limited her movements to the west wing, says Janan. She left the north wing unfinished and closed up the remainder of the house. Eventually, she moved to Atherton full-time. Llanada Villa remained a working ranch only, the day-to-day operations managed by Sarah’s ranch foreman, John Hansen.

Today, visitors to the Winchester Mystery House can see the damage in the Daisy Bedroom, where Sarah was jolted awake 114 years ago.

Daisy Bedroom

More Information:

Technology of the Winchester Mystery House

House of the Past and the Future

Winchester Mystery House is like an amusement ride into the past. The 160-room clapboard mansion with turrets and towers may be a relic in Silicon Valley. But the house had features that in the 19th century were considered pretty cutting-edge.

The enigmatic Sarah L. Pardee Winchester, a widow from Connecticut who arrived in San Jose in 1886, would definitely be considered a unicorn by today’s standards. She was wealthy, possibly eccentric, and flush with new ideas that played out within the rooms of Winchester Mystery House, an architectural incubator.


The Big Turn On

Five years before Sarah settled into Llanada Villa, the city itself was lit up. In 1881, San Jose was the first municipality in California to power up electricity from the downtown Owen’s Tower. Upon settling into her farmhouse Llanada Villa, Sarah ordered her own gas generator built. It supplied the carbide gas lights in the house, which ignited with a button!

Old antique light switch buttons

While that may sound slightly old-school, many other houses of the time were illuminated by candles or paraffin oil. To light up a room by pressing a button was wizardry.

Electric Light Tower

Courtesy Wikimedia /Illustration by H.G. Peelor of San Jose electric light tower, aka Owens Electric Tower.

Making a splash

Housing technology has advanced so lightning fast that you may find the next three sentences hard to swallow.

Less than 80 years ago, nearly half of houses in the United States lacked hot piped water, or a bathtub or shower. Over a third of houses didn’t have a flush toilet. In 1920, two years before Sarah’s death, only 1% of U.S. homes had electricity and indoor plumbing.1

In the span of your grandmother or great-grandmother’s lifetime indoor plumbing has become a non-negotiable item!

Sarah was 50 years ahead of the times. Her home had indoor plumbing, faucets, and showers. Plus, she had garden hoses—a brand-new invention—attached to those newfangled indoor faucets. They watered the plants in her conservatories. If not for them, someone would have had to lug water in buckets to the upper stories.


Can we talk?

Here’s a multiple choice situation: Let’s say you live in a mansion with 100-plus rooms. Obviously, you have a staff, about 18 people. How else to do the upkeep? It would take a year just to run a feather duster through all the rooms! One Monday at 6:15 in the morning, you need help lifting a box. You must call a maid. Here’s the clincher: the year is 1890. How do you find a servant to help?

A) Get off your duff and wander from room to room to find the person needed.

B) Start yelling out names. Your voice is loud.

C) Invent a contraption called an annunciator

D) Text or ring the servant

Answer is B.

Not really. It’s C. But we put that in case you glanced down to cheat.


The annunciator servant call box


Installed throughout the rooms of Llanada Villa, the annunciator had a master board located in the staff quarters. When Sarah pressed a button, a card would drop on the board announcing her location. A servant would answer the call. Her cars were also retrofitted with their version of the annunciators, a call tube. This way Sarah could communicate with her driver.



Future forward house

Sarah’s San Jose home was futuristic, the house of tomorrow, with wool used as insulation, a porcelain laundry basin with soap trays and washboard molded into the porcelain, the annunciator, indoor plumbing, and other contraptions you’ll need to see for yourself on a tour.

Sarah Winchester embraced the ethos of a region that would, 70-or-so years later, be branded for that innovative spirit. To use the parlance of today, her Silicon Valley home was a lifestyle incubator seeded by her own funding. She might even be considered the pre-unicorn of unicorns. Not bad for an older woman living on her own in the prim Victorian era.

1 “Lest We Forget, a Short History of Housing in the United States,” James D. Lutz, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. PDF of abstract.

Read More about Technology of the Winchester Mystery House

Unique Team Building in Silicon Valley

The most unique location in Silicon Valley

The Winchester Mystery House, a sprawling 160-room Victorian Mansion built by Sarah Winchester in the late 1800’s, can be the site of your next team building excursion in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Team-building events help strengthen work and personal relationships, and encourage communication amongst team members that may not always connect in day-to-day routines.


Garden Scavenger Hunt

Scour the grounds around the Winchester Mystery House and search for clues in a fun and interactive scavenger hunt. This exciting team experience includes a full tour of the mansion, digital scavenger hunt, picnic lunch in the Greenhouse and outdoor games such as Cornhole! These indoor/outdoor experiences can host up to 70 guests.


The Gardens

BBQ & Beer Garden Bonanza

For a more intimate team gathering, book the Beer Garden and enjoy a selection of craft brews and an Old West BBQ. Guests will enjoy a 30-minute tour of the Winchester Mystery house, followed by outdoor games like Giant Jenga, Connect Four, & Cornhole. Your team will also have access to Sarah’s Attic Shooting Gallery. All packages can be customized for every sized budget.


Beer Garden



Host your next team building exercise at the most unique location in Silicon Valley! Discounted rates are available.

Contact our group sales department today!


A Spiritual Road Trip

In the late 19th century, if a European wanted to start a new life, they sailed to America. If Americans wanted one, they headed West. In the Golden State, the sun shone consistently, the Spanish heritage romanced, and “every month in the year ripens a crop of some kind in the open air,” to quote the words from one promotional brochure. Those words lured a 45-year-old New Haven resident. Sarah L. Pardee Winchester boarded a train westward bound and disembarked three-and-a-half days later in Northern California. In the ensuing three-plus decades she spent out West, Sarah blazed a trail, one we’re about to follow … mostly. We may take you off the road for a few interesting historical bits.

Know that for this trip down memory lane—the San Francisco Bay Area in the Victorian age—you can take a train to stops 1, 3 and 4. For stops 2 and 5, a car is more convenient.


Stop 1: Market Street

The sidewalk activity of the West Coast office of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. (once at 408-410 Market Street) would have been similar to what’s captured in the 1905 footage “A Trip Down Market Street.” The historic clip is a fascinating peek at street life on what was dubbed “The Path of Gold.” You can still wander the massive hallways of San Francisco Ferry Building, built in 1898, a mere 12 years after Winchester’s arrival. The elegant Palace Hotel, which opened in1875 at the corner of Market and Montgomery streets, was the venue for a family celebration. Sarah’s favorite niece, Marion Isabel “Daisy” Merriman, wed Frederick Marriott III here in 1903. Though that edifice was destroyed by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1909. Today, you can eat in the Garden Court, or drink at the Pied Piper Bar, named for a famous century-old painting by Maxfield Parrish that still hangs there. To sink further into the city’s past, join San Francisco City Guides for a walk along “Historic Market Street: Path Of Gold.”


Stop 2: Colma

You’ll need a car to reach fog-shrouded Colma, 21 miles south of San Francisco, and Cypress Lawn Cemetery (1370 El Camino Real, Colma). But if you time it on the second Saturday, you can park and board a trolley with docents on board.


Courtesy Cypress Lawn Cemetery

Courtesy Cypress Lawn Cemetery


These monthly tours introduce people to the treasure chest of architectural and California history around the grounds. Daisy was cremated here, as was her aunt Estelle, but where she is interred is a mystery.

That said, plenty of historical figures are interred at Cypress Lawn to make the trip interesting, including Andrew Hallidie, the inventor of the cable car; Arthur Page Brown, the architect of the ferry building; and Phineas Gage, the railroad foreman who became famous after an iron rod pierced his skull (he’s here sans head).


Stop 3: Burlingame

Caltrain departs from San Francisco, arriving at Burlingame Station, opened in 1894. Within the depot is the Burlingame Hillsborough History Museum. Walk a half mile east to where “Winchester Ark” once docked, roughly at the intersection of Winchester Drive and Park Avenue. In 1904, Sarah purchased approximately 100 acres skimming the marshy bay in Burlingame and commissioned the construction of a houseboat. She called it “the Pasture.” After the 1906 earthquake, Sarah and her sister Belle and Belle’s family took residence here. Ten blocks from the ark was a Tudor-style cottage, purchased by Sarah, also in 1904, for $35,000.


Stop 4: Palo Alto

From Burlingame, the southbound Caltrain calls at Palo Alto, a once quiet hamlet where Sarah purchased at least two homes, one on Waverley Street for Daisy and her family and another on Melville Street—the latter one for a mere $5,000 in 1907.


Courtesy San Jose Library


Today, a two-bedroom house in PA commands close to $2 million. Stanford University had newly opened in 1891 and was becoming a pillar in the community. It was on an October day in 1912 that Belle hosted a dinner for Abdu’l-Bahá, the “Persian prophet” who was speaking at the university.


Stanford University

Stanford University

Courtesy San Jose Library


Likely, Sarah saw Stanford campus, and you can, too. Tours are led by students and can be conquered on foot or by golf cart. The heart is the Quad, designed by famous landscape-architect Frederick Law Olmsted (also responsible for New York’s Central Park) and the site of the 12 original classrooms. Plan ahead but start at the Visitor Center.

Also in Palo Alto is Alta Mesa Memorial Park, the cemetery where Sarah’s funeral services were held in 1922. Both she and Belle were interred here for a time until they were moved back to the family plot in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. Within these 72 acres are the gravestone of computer entrepreneur David Packard and the unmarked burial spot of Steve Jobs.

Farther south, Sarah also bought property in Atherton.


>>If you’re on the train, we recommend heading back to San Francisco. If you’re driving, head south to San Jose’s Winchester Blvd.


Stop 5: San Jose

When Sarah first saw the acreage and eight-room farmhouse off the unpaved Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road (now Winchester Blvd.), she was reminded of the Basque region and a valley called Llanada Alavesa, in English “Alava Plains.” Thus, she dubbed her new homestead Llanada Villa, today Winchester Mystery House.


Vintage Winchester Mystery House

Courtesy San Jose Library


The Basque may not be what comes to mind when you exit your car. The population has expanded noticeably into that pioneering scene circa 1888, the one Sarah likely experienced as she idled in her horse-drawn carriage. The fruit of this fertile valley is no longer prunes or peaches but circuitry, dongles and motherboards. Further, not a chance you’d score acreage let alone a humble farmhouse for $12,570, the price Winchester paid. Yet, when you walk into Sarah’s house, we invite you to shut out modern day and imagine another world.