The Chilling Story Behind the Winchester Mystery House, the Craziest Home in the U.S.

David Nash
Photo credit: Education Images - Getty Images

From House Beautiful

What started life in 1884 as an unfinished farmhouse on about 162 acres in California’s Santa Clara Valley has become one of the most recognizable and notoriously mysterious mansions in American history. Known today as the Winchester Mystery House, the sprawling-and incongruous-Queen Ann Revival was the constantly in-progress, and forever-unfinished, home to Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester. The scion of his family’s eponymous rifle company, and heir to its fortune, William died in 1881, leaving his widow a $20 million inheritance, and heiress to 50 percent ownership in the firearms business.

Photo credit: Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

Following his death, Sarah left their home in New Haven, Connecticut and traveled West, settling into the partially completed eight-room house in San Jose. Reports claim that 24-hours a day, 7 days a week for the next 38 years, the property was consistently under construction. It only ended-still incomplete-upon Sarah’s death in September, 1922.

Photo credit: Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

What remains is a mostly redwood four story, 160-room, 24,000-square-foot mansion on less than five remaining acres of land in one of the city’s heavily trafficked West Valley neighborhoods. The home has 2,000 doors (some leading nowhere), 10,000 windows (some interior-facing), 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, 40 stairways (at least one leading up to a wall), 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished), 13 bathrooms, a wood-paneled, Venetian-inspired dining room, six kitchens, three elevators, and two basements-whew.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

There are chandeliers of gold and silver, hand-inlaid parquet floors, and many of the original stained-glass windows were created by Tiffany. At one point, prior to the 1906 earthquake, the house was seven stories tall but it was reduced-likely due to damage caused by the quake. In fact, after the quake, Winchester all but stopped work on the front wing of the house. Luckily, the home was spared total destruction during both the 1906 and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes, because it was built using a floating foundation that allows the structure to move freely, as it’s only semi-attached to its base.

Photo credit: Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

Not many people, aside from household staff and teams of carpenters and other workmen, were invited into the mansion during Winchester’s lifetime, and very few-if any-interior photographs were taken. The furniture inside the home today reflects the period, but Winchester’s belongings, including the contents of the house, were left to her niece, Marian Marriott, who kept what she wanted and auctioned the remainder.

Photo credit: David Swann

After Winchester’s death, the property was also sold at auction, to a private investor, for around $135,000-today just north of $2 million. It was then leased to John and Mayme Brown for a 10-year period. The couple opened it to the public in 1923, and eventually bought the property (which is now owned by a privately held company that represents their descendants). The home was designated a historic landmark in 1974, and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Photo credit: Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

While the sprawling mansion has a reputation for being haunted, almost from its inception, it took 96 years from the date of Sarah's death to bring the story of Winchester and her infamous house-albeit a highly fictionalized version-to the big screen with last year’s supernatural thriller, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren as the home-building heiress. Hauntings and spirit sightings aside, the fabled home is definitely worth the price of admission (between $20-$49, for daily tours).

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