The Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

“Winchester Mystery House™ is an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship – marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least. Tour guides must warn people not to stray from the group or they could be lost for hours! Countless questions come to mind as you wander through the mansion – such as, what was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?

Some of the architectural oddities may have practical explanations. For example, the Switchback Staircase, which has seven flights with forty four steps, and rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis was quite severe in her later years, and the stairway may have been designed to accommodate her disability.” [From The Winchester Mystery House Website]

Sarah Winchester

Sarah Winchester

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. The couple’s life together was happy, and they enjoyed the best of New England society. However, in 1866, their young daughter, Annie developed a childhood disease (marasmus) and died. Sarah never fully recovered.

When her husband contracted tuberculosis and died in March of 1881, Sarah was beyond despair. As a result of her husband’s death, Sarah inherited an unimaginable $20 million and nearly half ownership in the ultra successful Winchester manufacturing company. Her share resulted in a $1000 per day salary (the equivalent of $20,000 per day in today’s dollars).

Completely distraught by these tragedies, Sarah consulted a medium in Boston, who claimed that a curse had been put upon the Winchester family ~ by the ghosts of those gunned down by the Winchester repeating rifle. The medium told her the that only way to calm the vengeful spirits was to use her $20 million inheritance to build a home that would confuse the apparitions. She instructed Sarah to continually add on to her house, and that if the renovations ever stopped, the ghosts would claim her life.

Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

In 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an unfinished farm house just three miles west of San Jose – and over the next thirty-eight years she produced the sprawling complex we know today as the Winchester Mystery House.

Winchester routinely held séances to get building instructions for the next day from the spirit world, from spirits like caretaker Clyde. Clyde still walks the halls, according to local psychic Annette Martin, who claims she has unlocked the secrets of the Winchester house by channeling Clyde. He communicates to her through scribbles. Martin says that Winchester told Clyde to stay and take care of the house.

“He comes here to remember the happy, happy times with Sarah and her wonderful organ music,” Martin adds.

When Sarah Winchester died in 1922, the construction stopped. Consequently, all the mysteries of the home may never truly be understood — its odd twists and turns, or doors leading to nowhere and stairs headed to the ceiling.

How would you like to wander through 110 of the 160 rooms of this Victorian mansion, and maybe bump into her on the tour? The house is full of unexplainable details and features, just a few of which are listed below:

  • The cost: the house cost about $5,500,000 to build back at the turn of the 20th century
  • The size: the house was originally situated on a tract of land measuring approximately 161.919 acres. Most of this land was sold off at a later date; the house itself covers just 4 acres. The original version of the house featured seven complete stories. Unfortunately, the earthquake of 1906 brought the house down to four stories, and two functioning basements.
  • The paint: In order to paint the entire home once it would take more than 20,000 gallons of paint.
Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Oddities inside the Winchester Mystery House include:

  • more than 1,257 window frames
  • more than 10,000 windowpanes
  • more than 467 doorways are evident within the house
  • more than 950 doors (not including cabinets)
  • more than 40 bedrooms in the house
  • 40 different staircases
  • 17 chimneys are still intact within the house, with the remnants of two others still visible

The unexplainable is waiting for you inside the Winchester Mystery House, so get ready for an adventure.

Visitors may begin touring the house at 9:00 AM. Hours fluctuate throughout the year, so be sure to contact the house administration for more details. Tour prices range from $20 to $30. Annual passes are also available. For more information on the Winchester Mystery House, please visit

The Winchester Mystery house is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California.

For a great page about ghosts and orbs captured in visitor photos, go to Ghost in my Suitcase.

Historic Preservation, San Jose, CA

The block you see below is now almost completely vacant. Courtesy of Google maps, we can see all of the structures that used to exist, dating all the way back to 1898. These were once grand Victorian homes, full of real people with real stories. Right smack in the middle of it all was a 1903 Colonial Revival Church. Now, thanks to our unenforced vacant building ordinances, they are gone.

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

This is the current situation in San Jose, California. If you are a vacant historic building, your days are numbered. Just since moving to my neighborhood in February, 2010, I have witnessed 2 suspicious fires to vacant buildings, one of which was slated for inclusion in the National Register, 3 needless teardowns of Victorians, and plenty of other troubling activities.

Delmas Church, Before

Delmas Church, Before. This was a Colonial Revival Church built by then pastor Reverend Emil Meyer in 1903, as First German Evangelical Lutheran Church

Delmas Church, After

Delmas Church, After

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

A suspicious fire on March 23, 2010 consumed the 1903 church on Delmas Avenue. After the discovery of asbestos, the fire investigation was delayed. There has been no news about the cause since.

The church was to be saved and restored, and put on the National Historic Register. The fire changed all that. Sadly, after the church burned, all of the surrounding vacant Victorians were unceremoniously torn down, one after the other. They had been slated for demolition by the owner of the parcel, Mark Robson and Delmas Park LLC.

The Unfortunate Victims
There will never be another 1898 Queen Anne Victorian at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenues. [See below].

German immigrant Louis Bauer acquired the lot at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenue (201-203 Delmas) in 1898 and built his Queen Anne style home. He added a store several years later.

Bauer was a well-known and respected community member who owned a popular saloon on the Alameda among other investments. Before living in this neighborhood myself, I had watched his poor home languish for 10 years on the corner.

Widow Mary Kerr bought the 253 Delmas lot in 1901. She hired architect William Klinkert and contractor D. A. Charteier to design and build her six-room, $1200 home.

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

A newspaper article featured her home as an example of the pretty homes being built in the district.

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

John Peschal bought the 255 Delmas lot in 1904. His contractor was the firm of Baron and Woehl. Peschal was a clerk for the popular downtown saloon, “The Tower”. Although all of these buildings could have been moved and salvaged, they were not.

A few blocks away, River Street is being revitalized. Little Italy San Jose could have used some nice Victorians for filling in blank spots. Check them out on Facebook at Little Italy San Jose.

The latest victim?

Only a few blocks away, JNSJ Roofing Co‎. was the former tenant of this cute little 1915 Victorian at 691 San Carlos Street, San Jose. Take a good look, because it is no more.

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA. Before.

A four-alarm fire burned the two-story building on Sunday afternoon, June 13th. The blaze was reported at 12:30 p.m. at 691 San Carlos Street. Firefighters declared the flames under control by about 2:40 p.m.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but I can’t. If you have vacant historic buildings in your neighborhood, and you don’t want to see “demolition by neglect”, contact your city councilmember.

691 San Carlos Street. After.

691 San Carlos Street. After. Photo Credit: "smokeshowing" on Flickr.

Let them know you support new laws to keep abandoned buildings secure and protected from fires.

UPDATE: 1/1/2011: The little Victorian at 691 San Sarlos is being rebuilt, and I’m happy to report it looks as though they are restoring it, with historic character intact!

More recent “suspicious” fires…….

Houghton Donner House
The Mansion burned down July 19th, 2007 under “suspicious” circumstances.  Preservation Action Council of San Jose had repeatedly made the City aware that it was being broken into and used by vagrants.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

It was owned Barry Swenson Builders who had proposed building a 200+ unit residential tower on the site.  A nonprofit housing organization was working to relocate and rehabilitate the house and use it for offices. We blogged about this here.

It is worthy of note that on April 26th, 2010 the following memo was presented to the Mayor. “Approval of an ordinance amending Chapter 17.38 – Neglected Vacant Houses Ordinance”

Read the details here:

Apparently this ordinance didn’t do a thing to stop the destruction of all the above mentioned historic structures.

Lest we forget….San Jose’s former glory

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: San Jose’s Hall of Records was built adjacent to the (current) Old Courthouse in 1893, and housed the offices of the county clerk, treasurer, auditor, surveyor, recorder and superintendent of schools. The current court house is the one with the dome, on the left, built in 1868.

A tragic amount of old buildings were lost in San Jose in the 1960’s, and the Hall of Records fell under the wrecker’s ball in November 1966. Structural engineers had reported that the building was an earthquake hazard, and it was not considered (by some) to be worth the cost of renovation.

In sharp contrast to this opinion is a quote from “Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers” (1896):

“The Hall of Records in one of the most massive buildings in the city, and its architecture is very beautiful. It is built of marble, granite and steel, and is an enduring testimony pf the prosperity and artistic taste of our people.”

I guess those people lost their taste somewhere along the way….

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Speaking of wrecking balls, San Jose’s original City Hall, a glorious, gargantuan stone Victorian building once stood downtown, in a spot that was converted to the “Plaza de Cesar Chavez” in 1993.

This beauty was built in 1887, to the tune of $150,000 – a rather princely sum at the time. How do we know this? Because the cornerstone, complete with date, was left to taunt us in the Cesar Chavez park. It was two stories high with a basement, and a massive Victorian facade finished with pressed brick and stone trimmings. It contained not only city offices, but a library, and a jail. Apparently the prisoners used to bother the people upstairs by banging their tin cups on the bars of their cells.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

If all of this nostalgia doesn’t get you a little misty, may we recommend this tear-jerking trip back in time:

San Jose Then and Now

“The Most Historic Building in San Jose” burns to the ground

By Jennifer Emmer, Fierce Preservationist

Houghton Donner House, in better days

The Houghton-Donner Family, on the front porch of their glorious Victorian, late 1880s. This view is of its original location ~ the corner of Julian and North Third Street, San Jose, CA. It was moved to its present location in 1909.

On July 19th, an irreplaceable piece of San Jose history went up in flames.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: The 126-year-old Houghton-Donner House, built for a member of the Donner party succumbed to fire, turning centuries worth of California and San Jose history, and at least a decade worth of contentious redevelopment arguments, into ashes.

Personally, I am deeply saddened by the loss of the house, as I was present for many discussions of its fate during Preservation Action Council meetings in San Jose at the Petit Trianon, another downtown beauty.

The Houghton Family, late 1800's

The Houghton Family, late 1800s

By the time firefighters arrived shortly before 4 a.m., the “highly suspicious” blaze had fully engulfed the Houghton-Donner House on North Fourth and East St. John streets. Preservationists and developers later tried to carefully dismantle the 5,000-square-foot home’s charred facade to see if it could be saved and incorporated into other buildings.

The house is considered by some to be “the most historic building in San Jose,” Fire Chief Guerrero said. The investigation into what sparked the blaze is ongoing.

The house was built in 1881 for Eliza Donner – a survivor of the Donner Party, a group of early California settlers caught in a deadly blizzard in 1846 trying to cross the Sierra – and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, San Jose’s fourth mayor, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War and a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The home embodied the Victorian architecture of the time and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

Not only was the building a significant piece of California history, it was an aesthetically pleasing part of the urban fabric of downtown. It always looked a little sad, not being used to its full potential. However, the building did receive an attractive “painted lady” paint job, while it languished.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

The Houghton-Donner House, After

San Jose police were the first to arrive on the scene, escorting squatters from the building. While some older downtown homes have been expensively rehabilitated, others are largely vacant except for homeless people who sneak into the buildings at night and apparently set fires for heat and cooking.

Fire Chief Guerrero said he considered the fire to be suspicious, due to the fact that the Victorian was boarded up with no electricity and no gas. Police had received complaints about squatters using the Houghton Donner House after Keith Watt sold it in 2005.

Both Henry Cord, a representative of current owner Tony Baig, and former owner Keith Watt said they had done everything possible to keep unwelcome people out of the home. Although the windows were boarded up, people apparently continued to break in.

Why does San Jose leave its historic homes vacant for so long, turning them into attractive shelters for squatters?

The plan to make the home a “vibrant place where people live” was moving forward, Cord said. Ironically, a meeting about moving the home to the Hensley Historic District had been scheduled for Thursday. [Current owner] Baig wanted to move the home farther north on Fourth, rehabilitate it and turn it into condos.”

I’ve been working for a year and half to two years trying to save the house,” Cord said. Keith Watts and the Preservation Action Council vigorously fought a 2002 city proposal to move the home to the Hensley District to make room for a parking structure on the corner of Fourth and St. John. Although they eventually stopped the plan, the fight drained the money that Watts had planned to use to rehabilitate the home. He ultimately sold it.

[From the Mercury News, 7/20/2007]

The Houghton-Donner House front porch, in better times

The Houghton-Donner House, in better times

Cord spent at least a year and half working with community groups to gain support for the renewed idea of moving the home. The application to do so is currently on file with the city.

“It has been a real hot potato,” Bellue said. But Cord believed he had the city and community support necessary to make the move this time. Baig made concessions to community demands, agreeing to keep the house as a home instead of turning it into commercial real estate. Bellue said the Preservation Action Council has remained opposed to moving the building but had been rethinking its stances in recent years.

For more on what can be done in light of the fire, see: