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The facade of an old Victorian mansion with a green lawn in front. Photographs by Patricia Chang

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Guilt House

A rifle manufacturing heiress channeled her grief into the creation of San Jose’s legendary Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House bills itself as "an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship—marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric." As one of the most famous haunted houses in the United States, it certainly has its mysteries. Some of these mysteries have been commodified for the many visitors that pass through its rooms and corridors each year, and some remain stubbornly beyond the reach of tourism. The house is more than baffling. It is more than eccentric. It is a study in almost unbearable sadness that refuses to be transformed into stories and snow globes.

In 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an unfinished farmhouse that sat on 160 acres of farmland and orchards in the Santa Clara Valley. She called it Llanada Villa, or the "house on flat land," and she sold its walnuts, prunes, and apricots under her own label. But Llanada Villa was much more than a farm: it was Sarah’s obsessive, 38-year construction project. There was no blueprint for the 160-room house; she made notes and sketches on napkins. When she died in 1922 at the age of 83, the Queen Anne Victorian mansion had 40 bedrooms, six kitchens, 47 fireplaces, a hydraulic elevator, and an aviary full of tropical birds. Then, as my tour guide says, "The hammers fell silent."

The story of the Winchester Mystery House is a story of guns, and of one gun in particular: the Winchester rifle. Sarah Winchester was New Haven native Sarah Lockwood Pardee, and she married William Wirt Winchester, the son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, founder of the legendary Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in 1862. The company manufactured the Winchester repeating rifle, which had been developed in 1860 by B. Tyler Henry. Sarah was gun royalty, but life was not always happy. Her infant daughter Annie died in 1866. Her father-in-law died in 1880. Her husband died of tuberculosis in 1881. From him she inherited more than $20.5 million and received nearly 50 percent ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1885, she set off for California.

Standing in Sarah’s bedroom, my guide speaks of her personal grief in hushed and reverent tones. "She sought out a Boston psychic to find out why she had suffered so much," he says. After a dramatic pause, he reveals how Llanada Villa came to be: the psychic told Sarah that the guns were to blame—she was responsible for the deaths of "100 million souls," and she was being punished. All the grief she had experienced was because of guns, she was told, so she decided build a house to atone for her sins.

Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

My tour group laughs nervously at the psychic’s judgment as we make our way through this place. Sarah Winchester’s house is known not only for its size, but also for its oddness. It has doors that go nowhere, stairways that lead into the ceiling, windows that look into other rooms (and one set into the floor), a chimney that doesn’t actually leave the house, and endless nooks and corridors. It was built from the inside out, and in the unfinished ballroom, where Victorian-era furniture is stored in neat rows behind velvet ropes, you can see the original color of the house’s exterior: light green with a dark green trim. Sarah added onto Llanada Villa, room by room, and the parts that were unfinished when she died are now painted black, as if they are in mourning for their own incompleteness.

Although aerial photographs of the house provide a sense of its size, it’s difficult to apprehend its hugeness when you’re inside, as the space is so compartmentalized and divided. But occasionally, when I can look out over the roof and its fairytale turrets, the expansiveness becomes clear.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House is surrounded by parking lots, strip malls, and rising condominium developments. Next door is a holdover from another era: Century 21, the shuttered, domed, midcentury modern movie theater designed by Vincent Raney in 1964. The Winchester property boasts not only the house, but also a number of other original buildings, including servants’ quarters and the fruit drying shed, and tourist trappings that include the Winchester Café, Winchester Estate Wine & Spirits, and a museum of firearms. The house hosts special events and Spirit of Christmas Tours, as well as nighttime Flashlight Tours and Bell Ringing Ceremonies every Friday the 13th. It is a local institution, and it may soon be the subject of a thriller starring Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester.

When Sarah was alive, Llanada Villa was a world unto itself, inhabited only by herself, her servants, and her niece Miriam. In fact, the house seems designed to confuse anyone other than its owner; it is a place in which you might lose yourself. Sarah herself believed that the house would protect her against the ghosts that pursued her.

My group tour somehow maps a trajectory onto a space that appears to lead in all directions simultaneously. Without a guide, one might set off anywhere. The house is overwhelming—it is hard to take in all of its details, but certain motifs recur throughout and seem to hold the space together. Sarah was fond of spider webs, so this design adorns a number of windows: an emblem of entrapment that mirrors the design of the house. There are invisible details too: she kept locks of her husband’s and child’s hair in a safe, along with their obituaries. And then there are touches that suggest her continued presence. In her bedroom is a framed photo of her on a table with a red rose. In another bedroom, a book lies open on a side table. Tea is set up in the parlor. None of the furniture is original to the house, so the rooms feel like theatrical sets.

Courtesy Winchester Mystery House

As we walk through this labyrinth, the guide calls out, "Stay close to your loved ones!" and several people laugh and clutch one another’s arms. We pass a camera crew setting up equipment outside of the Séance Room.

"They’re from Ghost Adventures," the guide says.

"But you have already been on Ghost Adventures," says a woman on the tour. "I’ve seen all the episodes."

"Oh, they’re always here," he says.

Today, Sarah Winchester is more of a legend than an actual human being, and "Legend has it" is one of my tour guide’s favorite phrases. The Séance Room is the heart of the house—the place where all of the stories about her find their fullest expression. She was the only person who had a key to this room, and there are bars on the windows. It was in this space that Sarah called forth the spirits of those she believed she had killed. Harry Houdini attended a séance here in 1924. Now it smells musty. "Locals report hearing the bell ring at midnight and again at 2 a.m.," says our guide.

We continue into the Daisy Bedroom, where Sarah became trapped when the 1906 earthquake struck early in the morning. The plaster on the wall was broken off over the lathe, and the room feels like a ruin. The windows of Belgian optical glass make everything outside seem larger, distorted. And here the tale of Sarah’s guilt and grief continues: she could have been sleeping in any of the house’s 40 bedrooms that night, but she had chosen this one. "She took it as a sign that the house was never to be finished," says our guide in a hokey horror film voice.

But even the tone of his voice can’t neutralize the almost unbearable melancholy of this place. It isn’t the intriguingly eccentric home it purports to be—its architecture is an architecture of grief and guilt: anguish transformed into passageways, stairs, and rooms. This is not to say that I know anything about Sarah Winchester or her desires and motivations. Like her house, she is a construction: a strange and perplexing marvel, something to be explored but not known. Another of my guide’s favorite expressions is "Who knows why."

The personal aspect of Sarah Winchester’s grief is both her own and the stuff of ghost stories. She lost people that she loved, and if you believe the stories, she never recovered from these losses. Her other grief—her larger sense of guilt, according to the legends—had to do with her relationship to the world, and this aspect is the most haunting. Above and beyond mourning the death of her daughter, husband, and father-in-law, the Winchester Mystery House is about mourning violent death by guns, and nothing could feel more contemporary, or more profoundly sad.

By the end of the tour, I have walked a half a mile of this 24,000-square-foot fortress and seen 110 of its 160 rooms, but all I can think of are the velvet ropes that marked off unknown corridors and passageways. Everything beyond what we saw. The house is supremely controlled—not haphazard—and it’s not really so odd at all. It is a memorial to the dead, but one that no one saw apart from Sarah, her servants, and Miriam.

Our tour concludes, and the group walks out into the sunlit courtyard and scatters. A green screen has been set up for souvenir photos, and two young men smile and point their prop Winchester rifles at the photographer, who shouts, "Okay, thanks!" and then gestures to the next two men in line, who move forward and take their position in front of the screen.

"What should I do with it?" asks one of the men, holding his rifle awkwardly by his side.

His friend laughs. "Just pose," he says. "Just do something funny."

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler
Photographer: Patricia Chang

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