In 1886 an eccentric woman named Sarah Winchester travelled from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California to start a new life. She purchased a small 8-room farmhouse and started a small renovation project that would take 36 years and $5.5 million (in the money of the time), only stopping when she passed away in 1922.
By the time she was done, the Winchester Mansion was a modern marvel, with indoor plumbing, multiple elevators, a hot shower, and central heating. It had over 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms, with 10,000 windows and even 2 basements. Of course, that’s not all that’s unique about the house. Not all 2,000 doors can be walked through—one leads to an 8-foot drop to a kitchen sink, another to a 15-foot drop into bushes in the garden below. Staircases lead straight to ceilings, expensive Tiffany stained-glass windows were installed in places where they would get no light, and there are more secret passages than Narnia. A particularly odd delight is a cabinet that, when opened, extends through thirty rooms of the house.
No one is quite sure why Mrs. Winchester demanded constant changes to her very large house. Of course, there are stories.
The most prevalent story is that Mrs. Winchester was being haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle, which her late husband’s company had invented. After her husband passed away, a psychic told her that to evade the spirits, she would have to move out west, buy a home, and build nonstop—some theories say she believed that as soon as construction was complete, she would die. In order to keep her paranormal tormentors at bay, she wanted them to get lost in the many intricacies of the house. As the theory goes, to avoid them she would sleep in a different bedroom every night and take labyrinthine paths through her own house.
A massive earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1906 and toppled the top three stories of the house, damaging the other four stories along with it. Sarah took this as a sign from the spirits that she was too close to completion and ordered the unfinished front half of the house to be boarded up—though open now, signs of damage from the earthquake are still clearly visible.
Today, some historians believe that Sarah Winchester constructed the house this way not because of her fear of angry ghosts, but because she was simply an inexperienced architect with a constantly-changing vision for her house.
A Mansion Tour, Garden Tour and “Behind the Scenes” tour are all available. (Behind the scenes tour not available for children under 9.) There are also Flashlight Tours around Halloween and every Friday the 13th. The Winchester Antiques Products Museum and the Winchester Firearms Museum are also housed nearby.
Update 2016: Multiple news sources have claimed that a new room, “Sarah’s Attic,” was found. This is not the case—”Sarah’s Attic” is a new shooting gallery in the courtyard.