The Inspector

By NPI, Inc.



Haunted Places Series: Winchester Mystery House

 October 16, 2023 |  Holiday, Just for Fun |  entertaining, fall, Haunted Places Series

Location: San Jose, California
Architectural Style: Exterior: Queen Anne-Style Victorian; Interior: Aesthetic Movement
Built: 1886 - 1922

As we progress through the Halloween season, we thought there was no location more appropriate to visit than one of the most notoriously unusual architectural wonders of North America - and the tale of the woman behind it all. For our next entry, we visit the Winchester Mystery House.

Sarah Pardee
Sarah Lockwood Pardee was born in 1839 in New Haven, Connecticut. In her upper-class New England home, Sarah had by all accounts a happy childhood with access to fantastic education, going on to learn four foreign languages (Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian). Pardee studied at Yale College’s associated female scholastic institution and became known for both her extraordinary intelligence and her beauty. Called the “Belle of New Haven,” Sarah had many admirers.

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, a brother to one of her classmates and member of a wealthy New Haven family. William was an only son and, therefore, sole heir to his father’s considerable manufacturing company, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. William and Sarah Winchester were a well-off, idyllic young couple, but early on, tragedy beset the Winchesters.

In 1866, Sarah gave birth to a daughter whom she named Annie. Unfortunately, the child did not live long, suffering from marasmus, a disease that causes severe malnutrition. Annie would be Sarah’s only child, and when William died of tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah was a widowed heiress to what had become a massive fortune, inheriting somewhere around $20 million dollars and nearly 50% of the Winchester company’s total stock.

Llanada Villa
After being widowed, the line separating the history of Sarah Winchester from the legend blurs, but there are a few things that can be determined for certain. For one reason or another, Sarah Winchester left her lifelong home of Connecticut and moved across the country near what today is San Jose, California. There, she bought a two-story farmhouse where she decided to make her new home.

This farmhouse, which she called Llanada Villa, would not remain the simple structure she bought for long, as Sarah herself began to chart and design ambitious additions. Carpenters and laborers were hired full-time and work began officially in 1886 with no end in sight. Ceaseless designs, redesigns, additions, and teardowns were ordered with results that were both beautiful and bizarre.

By 1904, the farmhouse had become a monstrous 7-story mansion, undoubtedly a sight to behold. It is hard to say where the expansion would have stopped if an earthquake had not damaged the top three floors and caused considerable damage to the mansion’s exterior. Since then, the building continued, but instead of building up, Winchester built outwards. The estate transformed into a sprawling structure really unlike anything else anyone had seen.

Construction continued on, in fact, until Sarah Winchester’s death on September 5, 1922. In her wake, Llanada Villa remained, a mystery house with seemingly endless secrets to be discovered.

The Mystery House
With Sarah Winchester’s eccentric home finally available for viewing, the public was finally able to fully take in the extravagance and the idiosyncrasies hidden inside. Each room was covered with finery and opulence clearly inspired by the aesthetic movement. In short, art for art’s sake: a co-mingling of visually stimulating design with everyday life, and an emphasis on “beauty” over practicality. The woodwork, the flooring, the wallpaper, almost everything was intricately designed with clear Victorian taste in mind. Then, beyond this design philosophy, the public found the peculiarities that helped make the mansion famous.

Stairwells led to nowhere, guided straight to the ceiling. A doorway opened from an upper floor into the building’s exterior, and a 15-foot drop to the hedges below. Secret passageways galore, cupboards opening into entire hidden wings, and skylights built into the floor make the mansion a sort of labyrinth, easily capturing the imagination of anyone who might set foot inside. After a visit from Harry Houdini, the famed magician appropriately dubbed Llanada Villa, “the Mystery House,” a puzzle even he could not solve. Ever since, that was how the Winchester home became known: The Winchester Mystery House.

The Folklore
Sarah Winchester never kept a journal, and had no manifesto to explain her reasonings for her odd design choices. Due to this, the legend of her and her California home has grown wildly over the years.

A common story has been that Sarah Winchester felt haunted by the men who’d died because of her late husband’s Winchester rifle. Advised by a medium, Sarah was convinced to “let the ghosts design her home,” performing regular séances which resulted in the rushed design plans. Others claim the designs were Sarah’s way of hiding from the ghosts, sleeping in a different one of her 40 bedrooms each night.

In 2018, the movie Winchester leaned heavily into this version of the story, creating a theatrical setting consisting of malevolent ghosts and a large, haunted house. In reality, the Winchester Mystery House seems to tell the story of a woman who went through a lot.

Sarah seemed to love gardening, with greenhouses built into her home. She was innovative, designing a complex communication system for her servants. When a safe was discovered (hidden behind two secure doors and within another larger strongbox) they found that the millionaire widow’s most prized possessions were her husband and daughter’s obituaries, and a lock of her daughter’s hair.

The Winchester Mystery House is a uniquely beautiful work of architecture made by an extraordinary figure, and without Sarah to explain her purpose or reasoning for its peculiar features, the home will likely remain a mystery.

To book your visit, visit the Winchester Mystery House’s website, and for any spooky mansion inspections, find a skilled National Property Inspections expert near you

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