However, have been put off by multiple reports that it's the worst kind of tourist attraction, and boring as hell:
Some people might argue that San Jose, California itself is a place not worth visiting before you die. Fair enough. But if you do find yourself driving its wide, traffic-clogged streets, you may be tempted to stop at the Winchester Mystery House — after all, it’s impossible to drive in or out of San Jose without coming across a billboard advertising the bizarre 160-room mansion built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
But please. Resist the urge.
The story of the Winchester Mystery House — or, rather, the legend — is as follows: after her infant daughter and husband passed away, Sarah Winchester visited a psychic who told her that her loved ones’ deaths were caused by the souls of the people who had been killed by the Winchester repeating rifle (tagline: “The Gun That Won The War”). If she didn’t take drastic action, said the psychic, Sarah Winchester could be next. The psychic supposedly told her that the only way to appease the angry spirits was to go west and build a house — not too difficult a task for a woman who had an income of about $1,000 a day in the late 1800s. But there was one catch: the house could never be completed. If construction ever stopped, the spirits would seek their revenge once more.
And so Sarah Winchester moved from Connecticut to San Jose, bought an unfinished 8-room farmhouse, and started construction. She hired shifts of men to work around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year. From the day she began until her death 38 years later, the workers never stopped. Every evening, legend has it, Sarah Winchester would retreat to a special séance room in the middle of the house to commune with lost souls and, while she was at it, figure out the next day’s construction plans.
The result is a sprawling mansion that gives a sense of what happens when a multi-million dollar fortune and a belief in the paranormal is combined in a woman with no architectural training. There are stairs that lead to the ceiling, chimneys that stop a foot and a half short of the roof, cabinets that are actually passageways, and a second-story “door to nowhere” that opens fifteen feet above the ground outside. Throughout the house are touches of grandeur — hand-inlayed floors, Tiffany glass windows — and bizarre architectural elements, like custom-designed window panes in the shape of spiderwebs, and a preoccupation with the number 13. (Thirteen ceiling panels, thirteen closet hooks, thirteen drain holes, thirteen cupolas, thirteen windows in the thirteenth bathroom — Sarah Winchester was nothing if not devoted.)
The house has been open to the public, in one form or another, since soon after Winchester’s death in 1922. But unfortunately for anyone intrigued by her story, its legend is more interesting than the tour itself. Part of the problem is that Winchester left all of her furniture, household goods, pictures, and other artifacts to her niece, the fantastically named Mrs. Merrian Merriman Marriott, who wasted no time in clearing out the house and selling them off. That probably was profitable for Ms. Marriott, but it means that aside from a few rooms that have been refurnished with period-appropriate décor, the gigantic house is empty. What’s more, despite the legend of the house — the séances, the spirits, the psychic — no one really knows for certain why Sarah Winchester built her house the way she did. Maybe the story is true; maybe she was just participating in a 20th century version of Extreme Home Makeover. Or maybe she was just bat-shit crazy.
Like all good tourist traps, the opportunities to spend money at the Winchester House don’t end with the tour. In addition to an arcade, offering a fine selection of 1980s videogames, there’s an “antique products museum” featuring a wide selection of Winchester flashlights, Winchester roller skates, Winchester wrenches and a display titled “Winchester House Immortalized in Gingerbread.” This “museum” is steps away from the Winchester House giftshop, a warehouse-sized collection of Winchester House shot glasses, totebags, t-shirts and specialty wine, all sharing shelf space with random tchotchkes — butterfly-shaped windchimes, novelty dishtowels, magnets announcing that “Stressed is Desserts Spelled Backwards.”
The effect of all this — the gift shop, the mile-long tour through endless empty rooms, the near total lack of concrete facts — is to leave you feeling as if you’d just binged on McDonald’s: full, and yet, surprisingly empty. In fact, the only justification for the house’s popularity as a tourist attraction is its size — whereas usually one would balk at the prospect of paying $26 to tour a crazy lady’s empty home, the Winchester House is so large that with some creative math, it’s almost justifiable: at 110 rooms in 65 minutes, it’s less than twenty five cents a room. For five dollars more, you can take the “behind the scenes” tour — which gives you access to the house’s plumbing system and includes the chance to wear a hard hat. What a bargain!
By the end of both tours, only one question remains: who signs up for the annual pass?