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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Sarah's Grand, Mysterious House

Seen from the outside, Winchester Mystery House is an enormous, grand jumble of fanciful turrets and spires. Inside, the sprawling mansion has passages that lead nowhere, exquisite Tiffany stained glass “windows” in dark recesses that admit no light; 120 rooms that include six kitchens, 2,000 doors, and myriad other oddities. Sarah Pardee Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, created this madcap edifice over a period of 36 years. Why she did it . . . is part of the mystery.

As a young woman, Sarah Lockwood Pardee was a charming society belle in her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. On September 30, 1862, she married William Wirt Winchester, another prominent New Haven socialite and the only son of Oliver Winchester, who was amassing great wealth from the manufacture of firearms. Both newlyweds were in their early twenties. In June 1866, Sarah gave birth to a daughter they named Annie Pardee Winchester. When the infant died six weeks later, it was said that Sarah teetered on the edge of madness for some time, possibly not fully recovered from this loss when her father passed away in 1869. Sarah lost her mother in 1880. Her father-in-law also died that year, leaving a vast fortune, and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, to Sarah’s husband William—who died of tuberculosis only three months afterward, in early 1881. William’s inheritance passed to Sarah, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world.

So many deaths. Popular legend holds that Sarah believed a spiritualist who said the ghosts of those who had died by Winchester weapons had put a curse on the family, telling her that she must build a home for these vengeful spirits—but could never stop building it or she would die herself.

Grief stricken, in 1885 Sarah sold her Connecticut mansion and moved to San Jose, California, where she bought an eight-room farmhouse called Llanada Villa and began renovating it—in time transforming a simple residence into a seven-story, architectural wonder. Whether or not the legend is true, or whether Sarah was simply unhinged by the deaths of her only child and other cherished family members, the fact remains that she did continue building, re-building, and altering the structure. And, whether or not Sarah felt she was cursed, most of the home’s peculiarities are due to the perhaps poorly-planned repairs she made after much of the structure was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Many people were faced with extensive home repairs after the 1906 earthquake; but Sarah went right on building, upward and outward , until the day she died, on September 5, 1922, of heart failure, in her early eighties. All this time, neighborhood tongues wagged with rumors about super-rich, almost entirely reclusive Sarah Winchester, and the growing size of her increasingly bizarre, mysterious mansion.

Sarah’s home, and what she made of it, still mystifies the thousands of tourists who visit it every year, to see rooms built around other rooms, trap doors, double-back hallways, and skylights located one above another. One door opens to a sheer 15-foot drop into the outdoor garden; another opens eight feet above a kitchen sink. In twenty-four thousand square feet—besides the features already noted—Winchester House contains 10,000 windows, 52 skylights, 47 stairways and fireplaces, 17 chimneys, and 13 bathrooms.

But who can say for sure that that’s all there is . . . because, in 2016, the Mansion Preservation Team stumbled upon a suite of nine rooms in the mansion’s attic that had never been seen before. What we do know for sure, is that the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is beautiful, fantastic, and still mysterious.

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