In a town where everywhere from the local multiplex to Chuck E. Cheese is supposedly haunted, the Winchester Mystery House stands out as the quirkiest of the bunch. The 160-room mansion, now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (and, thus, a tourist attraction), began as an obsession for Sarah Winchester, who, in an ironic twist, is now said to haunt her former abode.
The widow of William Wirt Winchester, inventor of the Winchester rifle, Sarah ventured west under the advice of a psychic, who informed the heiress that her salvation lay in owning a home on which construction never ceased. The spirits of those killed by her husband's invention would never harm her if Sarah kept building and building and building, supposedly to confuse the spirits seeking revenge.
The result of this nearly four decades of non-stop construction is a massive estate with eccentricities that range from staircases that end at ceilings, a seance room, and the infamous "Door to Nowhere," which opens onto a two-story drop for any unsuspecting visitor who might venture through it. Mrs. Winchester's affinity for the number 13 shows itself throughout the home, with many rooms boasting a baker's dozen of windows, and even a chandelier re-engineered to have 13 electric candles. Her beloved spiderweb motif also crops up in many architectural designs, such as window panes.
But despite these creepy origins, tours of the house are decidedly tame. There's more talk of the architectural oddities -- the switchback staircases made for a short woman with arthritis, the window in the floor -- than the sepulchral sightings that have made it the subject of numerous ghost-hunting television shows. Although the architecture is indeed unique and worth a gander, it's safe to say that the majority of the house's visitors are drawn by its darker history, and so will be disappointed, especially considering the price ($28 for the main one-hour Mansion Tour). And if you think the "Behind-the-Scenes" tour will offer more of a paranormal peek, think again; while this additional tour ($25 on its own, $5 extra if tacked onto the Mansion Tour) takes visitors into areas not seen during the main tour, there's little thrill in tramping through the cellar or the abandoned aviary.
Other detractors from what might otherwise be a must-see attraction are the ban on photos inside the house (for $28, a souvenir photo should be a given) and the cafe prices, which outdo even those of tourist-trap theme parks ($4.55 for a soda?!). So, unless the Winchester House has been on your bucket list since you first got the Discovery Channel, your best bet is probably to drive by for a quick snapshot. For now, exterior pictures are still allowed. And free.
For more info: Winchester Mystery House | 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose, CA 95128 | 408-247-2101 | http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com