In the latest of the World Travel Blogger series, renowned traveller Chris Christensen describes a place he knows well, in San Jose, California.
Sarah Winchester was the widow of the inventor of the Winchester rifle. She was a superstitious woman who is haunted by the fact that her husband’s invention, while it made her rich, killed a great many people. Combine those riches that superstition the advice of a medium, who apparently had a brother-in-law who was a contractor, and Sarah Winchester was led to believe that she would be protected if there was a constant sound of hammers building on her house. Whether she believed she was protected from vengeful spirits, wouldn’t die, or just would never have to hold a housewarming party is a subject of speculation. She started work on an unfinished farm house 3 miles from San Jose (at the time) in 1884 and continued contraction for 38 years. The mansion she left behind has come to be known as the Winchester Mystery House.
The Winchester Mystery House, in San Jose, California, is conveniently located next to the I280 freeway at the Winchester exit. I grew up just over an hour south of San Jose and just outside my hometown Salinas there has been a billboard for the Winchester mystery House for many years. It was, as I recall, one of only three things worth going to San Jose for when I was a kid. Frontier village, my favorite of those, has been gone for many years. The Eastridge shopping mall is not as unique as it used to be and isn’t the only ice rink for a 100 miles in any direction as it was when I was a kid. The Winchester Mystery House, on the other hand, still continues to get visitors, some of them, quite probably, like the school child that I was when I first visited.
The house itself is beautiful; it’s just the floor plan that is a bit, shall we say, eccentric. It lacks a cohesive plan so there are famously stairways that leads up into walls and doors that go nowhere. I recall one beautiful stained glass window purchased by Sarah Winchester that has precious and semi-precious stones inlaid in it. The window was meant to reflect to reflect the light into a dazzling array of colors. Winchester made two critical errors with the placement of that window. First, she put the window on the north side of the house where it would not receive direct sunlight. Second, after placing the window she went on to build a series of rooms on the other side of the window so it now sits on an interior wall.
Winchester was a suspicious woman as well as superstitious. She was also nearly crippled with arthritis. You can climb the staircases of the house, with their half rise steps in deference to Winchester’s arthritis, up to the second floor rooms where she had large skylights installed in the floor so she could keep an eye on her servants.
The best part of the tour are the numerous stories told by the guides. They will make sure to point out the details like the number 13 that keeps reoccurring, sink drains with 13 holes, etc. But the tour guides don’t have the answers to every question. The two stupidest questions they get, according to our guide, are:
• Why did they build it so close to the freeway?
• How many rooms are there that they haven’t discovered yet?
Chris Christensen has the popular travel site Amateur Traveler and was Gold Medal winner in Broadcast awarded by the North American Travel Journalism Association for This Week in Travel. You can follow him on Twitter chris2x