Sam McManis

Discoveries: No mystery to the appeal of the Winchester house

San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, which has 160 rooms, was the obsession of heiress Sarah Winchester.
San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, which has 160 rooms, was the obsession of heiress Sarah Winchester. Sacramento Bee file

Shameless kitschmeister that I am, I have no excuse for my avoidance of the Bay Area uber-tourist trap known as the Winchester Mystery House.

Really, it’s almost a travel writing malpractice. Somewhere in the firmament, Huell Howser hangs his head in sorrow.

I recently rectified this heinous omission. Now, when I drive by the billboard on I-80, adorned with Victorian spires and a long-barreled rifle, touting the “wonders” of the “bizarre” 160-room mansion, I can nod with the smug satisfaction of having done my fiduciary duty for readers.

My tone thus far implies that I merely endured, rather than enjoyed, the 65-minute, $36 basic tour of the house that firearms heiress Sarah Winchester built and built and kept on building over the decades before her death in 1922 at age 82. Believe me, reader, nothing could be further from the truth.

Oh, I wanted to dislike this roadside attraction – conveniently located next to the retail colossus of Santana Row – simply because it’s been hyped and oversold for so long. But I managed to quell the condition I call acerbic reflux and emerge from the M.C. Escherian maze of alcoves and crannies, nooks and cubbyholes, torn between two competing emotions:

1. Admiration for a filthy-rich woman who, guided by voices, showed supreme discipline in sticking with her plan of nonstop house construction to keep at bay the angry spirits of those killed by the rifles bearing the family name. (I mean, anyone who’s survived a home remodeling can attest to the domestic upheaval of hammering carpenters and yammering contractors, to say nothing of persnickety city building inspectors; now, imagine living through it for 38 years.)

2. Pity for a woman who seemed driven mad by grief at the premature death of her husband, William – on the heels 15 years earlier of the death of her only child – and was advised by a Boston spiritualist that the only way to assuage the demons assaulting her psyche was to stage a late 19th-century version of “Extreme Home Makeover.” (These days, one assumes, she would find solace, or at least a measure of emotional equilibrium, through prescription pharmaceutical means, without having to consult a medium or Ty Pennington.)

I’m sure that on her deathbed Mrs. Winchester never could have imagined that, 93 years later, a steady stream of tourists in flip-flops and fanny packs would be traipsing through her rooms and salons, skulking on her many staircases, noshing on snack-bar fare in her garden rotunda and both marveling and snickering at her extravagance-slash-folly.

Our entertaining Mystery House docent, Jack – who uncannily resembled actor Jack Black, from smarmy baritone intonation right down to arched eyebrows – vacillated between those two poles, heartfelt admiration and mocking pity, in his presentation.

“In this era and time period, spiritualism and mysticism were actually very prevalent. Legend has it she sought out the consult of a Boston psychic to find out why her family was having all these tragedies. The Boston psychic told her that it was everyone that had been killed by the Winchester Repeating Arms Rifles. All these souls were tormenting her family – and scholars put the estimate to be a 100 million souls (the rifles were used in the Civil War, after all). … They said it was really blood money she was making, and the only way to appease these spirits was to move out West, buy a house and start construction on it, and never stop, never finish.”

The price tag for 38 years of room additions, Jack added, was $5.5 million. When our group apparently didn’t show proper astonishment, he added: “That’s, like, $500 million today.”

(Editorial aside: Not to wade into the gun-rights debate, but if Mrs. W really was “tormented” by victims of gun deaths, wouldn’t it have been a better use of her wealth to, say, to divest from the family business or at least use the money as recompense? Just asking.)

Except for a small “Firearms Museum” tucked into the central courtyard, not much is made of the source of Mrs. W’s vast wealth. However, occasional sport is made of the widow’s eccentricities. How could you not? After all, it’s the raison d’être of the place.

Our group tittered and gasped at the endless design quirks: the cabinets that open onto walls; the stairways leading to the ceiling or a stark drop-off; the narrow hallways and low ceilings (Mrs. W was 4-foot-10); the 13 bathrooms with 13 windows (Mrs. W, no triskaidekaphobe, believed the number 13 was lucky); the 24,000 square feet of space so easy to get lost in. Docent Jack played up the mazelike aspect, cautioning that if we strayed we may “Never. Be heard from. Again.” He amused us with directions such as: “We’re going to take 44 stairs, make seven complete turns, travel a little over 100 feet only to rise 9 feet above us.”

Jack showed the utmost respect for Mrs. W, except when he didn’t. One such example was when we stepped into the “Seance Room,” where she “received building plans for the mansion from the spirits and hand them to the construction foreman the next morning.” Jack pointed to the windows in one corner, which overlooks one of the six kitchens. He said Mrs. W cracked the windows and listened in to her servants’ chatter.

“If she heard you were talking about her as the short woman not playing with a full deck, chances are you weren’t going to work there the next day,” he said.

Jack hastened to add that Mrs. W was very generous to her staff, paid them above market rate and provided free room and board (she definitely had the room, after all).

Yet, there were plenty of signs that she, indeed, may have been a 10-of-clubs shy of a full deck.

We were shown the Daisy Bedroom, where Mrs. W was trapped during the 1906 earthquake.

“She took this event as a literal sign from the spirits that she has spent too much money on the front of the house and it was almost near completion and she was never supposed to complete anything,” Jacks said. “So she had the front 30 rooms boarded up, and they were never used again until after her death.”

We also were shown the Grand Ballroom, with two cryptic quotes from Shakespeare etched into the Tiffany windows: “Wide unclasp the table of their thoughts,” and “These same thoughts people this little world.” Jack gave an exaggerated shrug, didn’t try to discern meaning from these lines from “Troilus and Cressida” and “Richard II,” respectfully. Instead, he pointed to an ornate wood door.

“Behind that door is a door almost the same size, then a steel door,” he said. “Open that door and behind it is a very large safe. Open the safe door and you’ll find yet another safe. The only thing they found in the safe were two locks of hair and the obit notices from her husband and daughter’s funerals. She was truly in mourning for the rest of her life.”

The Mystery House, therefore, is nothing less than the world’s most elaborate self-built crypt.

Winchester Mystery House

Where: 525 South Winchester Blvd., San Jose

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily

Cost: Mansion tour: $36; $32 (seniors); $26 children; 408-247-2101

Bay Area historic mansions

The Bay Area is known as a haven of “new money,” with high-tech billionaires building lavish manses. But there’s a long history of rich people building trophy houses. “Discoveries” has visited three historic dwellings.

Oct. 25: Filoli in Woodside

Nov. 1: Pardee Home in Oakland

Today: Winchester Mystery House in San Jose