Touring the Winchester Mystery House

I took the day off from work on Monday to spend some kid-free time with the husband. We ended up at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose – someplace we could never visit with the little man as it isn’t wheelchair accessible. You’ve heard of this place, I’m sure. It is the house built by Sarah Winchester and kept in constant construction for 38 years, obstinately to make amends for those killed by Winchester weapons.

The front of the house. You can’t take photographs inside.

It is a standard feature of any show about unique architecture, historic places, or ghosts. Watching shows like that put the house on my to-do list, but there are some major difference between that television house and what I saw in person.

Specifically –

1) It is a lot smaller.
2) It is less crazy.
3) It is more interesting.

You pull up to the house and it looks a little tourist-trapish. The gift shop, café, and tour-waiting area (complete with arcade shooting gallery) certainly doesn’t help. The husband and I were getting quite a laugh out of the tacky, but also wondering if we’d wasted our money. The tours aren’t exactly cheap; $36 per adult for the basic mansion tour. We had pretty much decided that we were about to walk into a space that looked like a Victorian catalog threw up all over it. You know what I’m talking about – those historic homes or attractions that are just too much. Too over the top. Too ridiculous.

I’m happy to say this was not the case when we made it inside. So let’s talk about these takeaways –

It is a lot smaller. It is a mansion, don’t get me wrong. But it is hardly a sprawling Rose Red-esque estate. An entire floor plus a 3-floor tower were lost after the 1906 earthquake, leaving a house that varies from 3 to 4 stories depending on what part you are in. The interior is large, but the constant construction left all but the front original rooms small and cozy. The grand front rooms were gorgeous and looked a bit more like what you might expect of a mansion, but were still lovely and homey. I quite liked it.

It is less crazy. One of the strangest things about the house you see on television is the weird, tiny, winding staircases located in closets and back passageways. These actually have a perfectly logical function – Sarah had severe arthritis and installed small easy-rise stairs so she could get around her home easily. With these stairs you only had to raise your foot a couple of inches, but retrofitting the new access points meant a lot of turns and narrow openings. At the beginning of the tour we went up 44 stairs with 7 turns just to make it to the second floor. The tiny stairs for the 4’10” lady didn’t occupy any more space than a traditional staircase. They were hilarious to navigate, but made perfect sense for her situation. Once you could see the entire house at once, a lot of the weird just looked like a house that had been added to haphazardly.


It is more interesting. Sarah Winchester was an extremely wealthy woman. When she started construction on her home in 1881, she had $20 million (equivalent to nearly half a billion today) with shares in the Winchester company that generated an additional $1000 a day (between $20,000-$25,000 today). She started her staff at twice the regular rate for the area, gave pay raises, fed everyone, and built houses for families on her land (single workers lived in the house). She had funds to bring in all sort of modern conveniences for both her and her workers. Including the ability to just try things out and design efficient systems inside her weird house. Sarah Winchester closed up the front rooms of the house after the 1906 earthquake, so you were able to see details about building construction and the damage the house sustained when you toured those rooms.

So yeah, it is a weird house built by a troubled woman. But there is a lot more to the story. I suggest checking it out.

Back to our visit. For the $36, we got a guided tour of 110 out of 160 rooms in the house. It lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. Our tour guide was great! It did occasionally lean a little to the hokey side – talking about the unusual things spiritualists did, could it be haunted, you could get lost and we’d never find you, etc. – but she was very knowledgeable. She spouted off facts about the house without even having to think and the sillier side of the tour kept the two kids that were with us fully-engaged. It was a great balance between fun and facts.

Overall, I had a lot of fun and I’m really glad we went. Totally worth the tour price.

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