SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sarah Winchester disliked visitors to her 160-room mansion. Perhaps because the eccentric widow had lots of company from the spirit world, said to be the reason she spent 38 years supervising America's quirkiest home improvement project, seven days a week, until her death in 1922.Follow @canoetravel
Only then did work cease and the curious public was allowed behind the giant cypress hedges to see what an army of carpenters, masons and gardeners had been toiling on all those years -- without blueprints.
Sarah's "spirit house," quickly became a local sensation, drawing everyone -- from magician Harry Houdini to psychics and paranormal experts -- to the Santa Clara Valley.
They wanted to find out if it was true that Winchester was really battling a legion of restless souls throughout her house -- those killed by the Winchester repeating rifle.
"The Gun That Won The West" had made Sarah's husband William a fortune back in New England during the late 1800s. But the untimely passing of their infant daughter Annie and then William at age 43, left Winchester devastated, albeit with a $20 million inheritance and half-ownership of the company.
A Boston medium told her such family tragedy could only be linked to all the Native Americans, Civil War soldiers and settlers who'd died by her family business. To set things right, she must head West, find a large house and keep expanding it.
Starting in 1884, the hammering, sawing, decorating and redecorating went on 'round the clock at the orders of the rich recluse. Either the spirits would be content or the constant noise would drive them out.
The result is an amazing Victorian dollhouse/funhouse that our group toured starting with the parqueted-floor foyer and the world's largest collection of antique Tiffany glass.
Further in, guests of all ages can turn up to 950 doorknobs to see what's behind, but be wary of one that plummets into a shaft with a kitchen sink one storey below. Other doors open into a solid wall or cleverly hide cabinets, while what looks like a cabinet in is the only exit to another room. The small passages and tiny stairwells made it easy for the four-foot-something, arthritic Winchester to move about the house and use spy-holes to watch servants and builders.
Plenty of optical illusions are part of Mystery House experience, too. In part of the house converted from a barn, it takes 100 steps at 2-inch heights to climb just 9 feet, while other ornate staircases have exactly 13 steps. Thirteen is precisely the number of bathrooms in the mansion, as well as the number of windows in the 13th bathroom. Presumably you would choose another loo if you wanted privacy!
Thirteen panes are also featured in some stained glass windows, while another has crystal prisms emanating from a spider's web -- an occult motif Winchester favoured. Many nights, the widow retired to the Blue Room, where seances were reportedly held.
Guests lose count of the 47 fireplaces, but while Winchester's staff was warm, if they required a mirror it had to be hand held. Good spirits, you see, were thought to vanish at the sight of their own reflections, so Winchester kept big mirrors to a minimum.
The mansion once rose seven storeys with an observation tower at its highest point, until the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 brought it crashing down, nearly killing the widow in her bed. Interpreting the destructive quake -- huge cracks in the plaster are still visible -- as a sign she was still cursed, Winchester refused to enter the front of the house ever again, sealing off one of the most striking attractions, the grand ballroom. To further vex the visiting spirits, she never slept in the same room two consecutive nights.
Winchester was fanatic about detail, insisting on the same expensive wall-coverings as the White House, yet when President Teddy Roosevelt came by, like many other VIPs, he was turned away.
She over-stocked almost everything -- exterior red-and-cream tile for the turrets and cupolas, imported wood and bolts of rare silk from the Far East. And, when buying, she often purchased all materials available in San Jose at the time to insure no one else could rival her home. Doing up the estimated 160 rooms was actually more like 500 to 600 when the many do-overs are considered, but the excess supplies at least made 21st-century restoration easier.
Giving up on guns, Winchester proved to be a shrewd businesswoman, expanding the estate to 161 farm acres, incorporating plum, apricot and walnut groves amid her palm-lined gardens. These can be viewed on a separate tour, along with the Winchester Firearms and Antique Products Museum and her vintage cars that rarely left the garage.
NEED TO KNOW
-- The Winchester Mystery House is 5 km from downtown San Jose, adjacent to a thriving shopping/dining/hotel district called Santana Row. The Winchester Mystery House is a California historical landmark and also listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
-- San Jose is worth visiting with kids for The Tech Museum Of Innovation. With the city in the heart of the Silicon Valley, it's the ideal place to find out what's round the corner in the changing world of future technology. An Imax theatre and many interactive displays will fascinate all ages.
-- Driving from San Francisco to San Jose takes between 40 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. Also available for around $20 US is a day pass on the Cal Train (caltrain.com), which has downtown stops at San Francisco, SFO airport, downtown San Jose and Palo Alto.