Taking a Winchester House virtual tour has been a little tricky since the contract for a movie about Sarah Winchester, played by Helen Mirren, was signed.
Winchester will hit theatres in the US on February 2, 2018, and has been in production for a few years. But from the time the ink dried on the film contracts to now, visitors weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the house.
It’s a rule that is heavily enforced by Winchester House tour guides, along with the “no touching” rule that hopes to preserve the mammoth mansion.
Disclosure: Winchester Mystery House kindly led a bloggers tour of the mansion and allowed us to photograph it from the inside. While the tour was free, as always, my views are honest and my own.
SARAH & THE WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE HISTORY
Before we head inside on the Winchester House virtual tour, we should probably run through some of the history of the place.
You can read up on it all here, but in a nutshell the Victorian house and gardens were once home to the richest woman in the country, Sarah Winchester.
Sarah Winchester’s Early Life
Sarah was born sometime in the decade from 1835 (records aren’t definitive) in New Haven, Connecticut to Leonard and Sarah Pardee. Her father built carriages and made his money during the Civil War by making ambulance carriages to the Union.
Sarah would have been known as a well-rounded young woman. She had more than four languages under her belt, was a talented musician and attended Yale College’s female arm, the Young Ladies Collegiate Institute.
It was no surprise then, that she married the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, William Wirt Winchester in 1862.
The couple’s only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, was born four years later but their joy would be short lived.
Annie survived just forty days – her body was not able to metabolise proteins, leaving her severely malnourished. Her death left a lasting sorrow on her parents, but it was not the last that Sarah was to face.
William’s father died in 1880, leaving the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to his son. But a year later William succumbed to tuberculosis. The deaths left Sarah with $20 million of inheritance and almost half of the stock in the company.
Winchester Mystery House
The fortune made her one of the world’s richest women and she spent a few years traveling Europe before moving to California in 1886, to what is now San Jose.
Sarah Winchester bought what is now known as the Winchester House and 161 acres of land. It was just an eight room farmhouse, but from that time on the house grew exponentially to up to 600 different rooms.
The legend surrounding the house and Mrs Winchester is that she was told by a Boston medium that she was haunted by those killed by Winchester rifles and she herself would die unless she continuously built a house around her.
There is no evidence of the meeting ever having occurred, or that Mrs Winchester was an “occultist” or that she communed with the spirits of the dead.
WINCHESTER HOUSE VIRTUAL TOUR
Winchester House & the Doors to Nowhere
Instead she did all of that herself. As you can imagine, she spent a lot of time sketching designs, presenting and explaining them to her builders, who would then have to make her drawings a reality.
Imagine explaining to a builder that you’d like the installation of a few doors on the higher floors that lead nowhere.
I don’t mean that the doors would open to a wall, although those do exist inside Winchester House. Step through one of these doors and you’ll find yourself falling a fair way down into the garden. Or down a shaft to the kitchen.
Why would anyone create something so dangerous and confusing? Unfortunately, Mrs Winchester was not keen on guests, to the point of being reclusive.
And she didn’t leave letters or journals documenting the thought process behind her designs. So no one really knows why much of the house is the way it is.
Stairs to… the Ceiling?
Staircases, complete with banisters that climb up into the ceiling. On the surface it doesn’t sound all that weird.
Except there are no doors at all at the top of these staircases. No trapdoors, no hidden doors and no way of getting from the staircase up to the next floor. Unless you’re a ghost (in which case you wouldn’t bother using the stairs to start with).
Exploring this labyrinth must have been fun, because no blueprints exist and as the Winchester mansion spread up and out, rooms were tacked on wherever they would fit.
Speaking of stairs, as Mrs Winchester got older she began to suffer from severe arthritis that limited her movement. The Switchback Staircase was designed to help her get to her bedroom from downstairs without too much discomfort.
It’s only rises 2.7 metres (nine feet), but the Switchback Staircase has seven flights of forty-four steps that rise just two inches.
Stained Glass Window
The most famous piece of glass art within the house is also its most expensive. The ornate window is inset with pastel designs and flowers but we’ll never see it in its full glory.
There’s no doubt that the Tiffany Company designers meant for the $1500 stained glass piece to send coloured beams of light dancing across walls and floors as the sun moved.
But Mrs Winchester had different ideas. She placed her most beautiful window in front of a wall on the north side of the house so the sun never touches it.
Many of the house’s windows were designed by the Tiffany Company, not to be confused with the jewelry designers and manufacturers of the same name.
Tiffany glass was made in New York by Louis Tiffany between 1878 and 1933. It was inspired by a trip through Europe and specifically by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum collection of glass.
Lucky Number 13
Chandeliers were modified to hold 13 lights, there are 13 ceiling panels in many rooms, some rooms hold 13 windows or the stained glass windows hold 13 jewels, 13 stairs in a flight, 13 railings holding up a banister, and the house has 13 bathrooms.
Sarah’s fascination with the number even extended to her will, which was made up of 13 parts, and so was signed 13 times.
Even though the number 13 is widely thought of as being “unlucky” in superstitious circles, in Italy it is just the opposite.
The Unfinished Sections
You can take the Mansion tour for a peak at some of the rooms that were still being worked on when Mrs Winchester died in 1922.
They are packed full of bits and pieces that were salvaged after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that felled parts of the building and pinched a door shut, trapping Mrs Winchester inside a bedroom.
There are balustrades, sconces, windows and banisters, as well as lots of other things that my non-construction trained eyes couldn’t identify easily, or correctly.
Wall Coverings… NOT Wallpaper
They are actually Lincrusta Walton wall coverings. Invented by Frederick Walton in 1877, who had first developed linoleum floors a decade earlier.
Apart from the beautiful designs offered by these wall coverings, they became popular in Victorian circles because they were washable without causing degeneration. So they were seen as sanitary.
Winchester House Victorian Gardens
That meant gardens, particularly Victorian ones. So Sarah had her fair share of gardeners to tend to the vast grounds.
When you visit today, you’ll only get to see a portion of what would have been The Winchester Estate, as fair chunk of it was sold off after Mrs Winchester’s death.
If you’ve got a little time before your tour of the house, head outside and tour the gardens on your own.
It’s thought that $1.5 million was spent on the gardens and surrounding orchards (when they existed) so there had to be buildings to house farming machinery and to store the surplus fruit and vegetables that were harvested.
Winchester House: Everything you need to know
- Winchester House is at 525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose, California
- Opening Hours: 9am-7pm daily (including weekends)
- Box Office: +1 (408) 247-2000
- It’s a good idea to book tickets online in advance
Tours and Prices
- The Mansion tour runs just over an hour and takes you through 110 rooms of the house. It’s a great coverall and the best tour if you’ve never visited before. Discounted rates apply for groups of 15 or more.
Prices: Adults (aged 13-64) $39, Children (6-12) $20, Seniors (65+) $32.
- The Grand Estate Explore More tour is the fist new tour to be added in more than two decades. It takes guests to rooms and areas of the house that have previously been off-limits. This two hour tour takes guests on the Mansion tour before a brief break. Afterwards you see the manor from the ground floor all the way out onto the rooftops.
Prices: Adults (aged 13-65) $49, Children (6-12) $20, Seniors (65+) $42.
- Each Friday the 13th, Winchester House embraces its haunted persona and hosts the Friday the 13th Flashlight tour. These tours will run on April and July 13 during 2018.
Prices and available tours are posted online closer to the date.