Gallivanting in California: San Jose's Winchester Mystery House  

Posted by Heidi

I grew up just down the road from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.  I spent my teen and early married years going to the movies at a theater Right. Next.  Door. (One can find photos on the internet with these large domes nearby the house--these are old fashioned movie theaters at which one queued in front of to buy tickets back before the multi-plex was born.) I drove past it on the way to work and the mall.  "One day," I said, "I am going to go inside."  I even believed it.  It's such a romantic (read: fanciful) place and I'm a sucker for anything romantic (whether it be fanciful or otherwise) so I figured I would make it there one day.  And I did!  Last month!  I only had to wait fifty years!  (Seriously.)  Of course I could have gone there sooner but everyone said it was just an empty house with crazy stairs.  They were wrong.

Of course it wasn't called The Winchester Mystery House when Sarah Winchester lived there.  According to the sign out front, it was called Llanada Villa, a fact I was unaware of until I paid to enter and saw it for myself.  It is rumored that Harry Houdini dubbed it the "mystery house" when he visited it in 1924 as a tourist attraction after Sarah's death.  (Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge them.  So many details.)

Many photos of the exterior can be found online (mine aren't the best since they were taken as the sun was setting behind it) but we were not allowed to photograph any of the inside.  (I did find a few of the interior online but they weren't very up to date.)  If I had been allowed to, this would have been a much longer post (to say the least).  None of the furniture is original since everything was sold at auction by Sarah's niece.  Strangely, the items from the house were not identified as belonging to the house and so there are many people in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond who might own something of Sarah's and be all unawares (maybe even me!). 

We were allowed to photo the outside, however.  This is the Almond Courtyard.  I was very impressed with the organized, methodical and beautiful arrangement of everything about the house and gardens.  I grew up hearing tales of how crazy and haphazard the house was.  There are a few oddities but, for the most part, it is a very tasteful and beautiful house.

I absolutely loved all of the windows.  Many of them are by Tiffany and a few were designed by Sarah herself, in her favorite spider web design. 

I had grown up believing that she was a crazy and rather demented woman but my impression, after seeing her house, was that she was incredibly bright, gifted, strong, tenacious and sure of herself.  (Yes, she was superstitious, but so am I.)  The room seen through these windows was the front parlor.  Over the years people have donated period-appropriate pieces and money to furnish the house and someone did a glorious job of filling this room with Victorian pieces in creams and whites. 

This photo of the front door captures some of the sparkling windows in the house.  The entryway on the other side of this door is just spectacular.  All I can say is that Sarah Winchester had amazing taste.  Of course, most of the things inside weren't hers, but the carpets, the wall papers, the trims, the hardware, the built ins, the angles, the light fixtures, the proportions and lay-out---all of that was Sarah.

The photo above shows the Door to Nowhere.  It originally had a little balcony under it which was in poor repair so the new owners had it removed.  They thought it would be a great thing to label it as they have.  It bothers me just a little as it makes Sarah seem quite mad.  (I guess I'm a fan.)Having said that, it would not be odd to have a door like that in a house of its age--it's called a coffin door and is made that way so that when the wake was over, the coffin didn't have to be carried down the stairs to the waiting coach.

I particularly loved these windows.  There were SO many gorgeous windows, some of which were situated in such a way that the sun would never shine through them. In one case, an addition was built against the window--a large, gorgeous, Tiffany-made one on the landing of a staircase.  Such a waste!   There were other gorgeous windows that go along the top floor of the front of the house.  However, that part of the house was abandoned after the 1906 earthquake and construction was never completed. 

In the photo below, the hedges are shaped into the number 13.  This is a recent addition in honor of Sarah.  She felt that the number 13 was a great number and had gotten a bad rap so she used it everywhere.  She even had a chandelier with 12 candle holders changed to one with 13.  I went through the house with my daughter and in one room, there was a closet in which, we were told, were 13 hooks to hang her cloaks.  I counted them and was absolutely sure there were 14.  I whispered to my daughter to count them and she came up with 14, also.  Just another inexplicable mystery at the Winchester Mystery House.  Also in this photo can be seen a bit of exposed wood siding (far left top).  She hated the look of wood and had everything treated in order to hide it.  This is an example of something that just never got done.

This is the back of the house.  I think it would almost be worth the price of admission ($40--or was it $50?) just to see this slumbering wisteria vine (on the arbor) in its full glory. 

Sarah had thought of so many things when designing the house.  The row of large windows in the photo below open into a room that is so full of sunlight and beauty with gorgeous views of the garden below.  The house is most definitely too large for me but that one room almost made me want to move right in.  (Of course the nearby room with the three fireplaces and steam system to alleviate her arthritis was pretty tempting, too.)

The last two photos are of the greenhouse or arborateum.  I loved the delicate all-glass dormer windows.  It really is such a beautiful place, I can't believe I waited fifty years to go and see it for myself.  It isn't my style, exactly--I would have used green shingles and painted the house white--but much of it is just my style. 

These photos were taken in January.  It must be absolutely glorious in April and May!

Next time:  more of my trip to Monterey/Carmel/Pleasant Grove

This entry was posted on Monday, February 23, 2015 at Monday, February 23, 2015 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

2 wise, witty and wonderful comments

It is good to see the exterior maintained so beautifully. My last time through was 2005 and honestly I don't remember any furnishings. I think your photography is wonderful.

February 23, 2015 at 7:45 PM

Leila, there were only three or four rooms that were furnished--very well done!

February 23, 2015 at 10:22 PM

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