The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is one of the nation’s most curious landmarks. Built by a millionaire widow over the course of 36 years, the sprawling mansion features more than 200 rooms, 10,000 windows, trap doors, spy holes and a host of other architectural oddities.
A popular tourist attraction, the house, along with many other cultural institutions in the United States, has closed to help curb the spread of coronavirus. But as Michele Debczak reports for Mental Floss, you can now explore the Winchester House from afar via a detailed video tour posted on the mansion’s website.
The narrated video tour spans more than 40 minutes, providing insight into the property and the mysterious woman who built it: Sarah Winchester, wealthy and reclusive heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which manufactured an innovative rifle that became a fixture of Westward expansion.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee married into the Winchester family in 1862. Four years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Annie, who died about a month later. Her husband, William Wirt Winchester, died in 1881, leaving his widow with a vast fortune: 50 percent ownership in the Repeating Arms Company and a $20 million inheritance.
Winchester decided to leave her home in New Haven, Connecticut, and head to California, where two of her sisters lived. In San Jose, she purchased an eight-room farmhouse that she began to renovate in 1886. The construction project continued until Winchester’s death in 1922, producing an enormous, labyrinthine mansion filled with logic-defying features: staircases that end at the ceiling, indoor balconies, skylights built into floors, doors that open onto walls. The designs, wrote Pamela Haag for Zócalo Public Square in 2016, were Winchester’s; she sketched them onto napkins or pieces of brown paper, then handed them over to a team of carpenters. Sometimes, she would have features built and plastered over the next day.
Exactly why Winchester embarked on this dizzying cycle of building, undoing and rebuilding is impossible to say. Popular lore has it that she was a keen follower of the Spiritualist movement, which was rooted in the idea that dead souls can interact with the living, and consulted a medium who told her she had been cursed by victims of Winchester rifles. The medium reportedly instructed her to constantly build a house for these ghosts. If construction ever stopped, she would die.
But as Katie Dowd of SFGate points out, there is “scant proof” for this theory. Winchester could have been engaging in an eccentric brand of philanthropy, as she built her home during an economic depression, and the continuous construction project provided jobs for locals. When she died, in fact, the heiress left most of her money to charity.
“She had a social conscience and she did try to give back,” historian Janan Boehme told Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all.”
The true nature of Winchester’s motivations is likely to remain a mystery. But as the video tour points out, the house she built was not only bizarre—it was innovative. Take, for example, the north conservatory. Winchester loved to garden, so the conservatory featured an indoor watering system and wooden floorboards that could be lifted up to water plants resting below.
Though visitors can watch the video tour for free, the Winchester Mystery House is asking visitors to consider purchasing a voucher for use at a later date.
“Like many other [Bay Area] businesses, closing our doors until April 7th will severely impact the employees who maintain the estate,” the website explains. “Come when you are ready, but please come!”