Winchester House

The first thing to remember about the Winchester Mansion is that this is a private concession, like a ride at Disneyland, not a museum or a state preserve. The owners have no commitment, contractual or otherwise, to historical accuracy. Those are the ground rules. From the moment you step out of your car and click the locks down, you are entering a well-developed commercial fantasy. That said, the house and grounds Sarah Winchester created are beautiful and fascinating, well worth a few hours of your time.

Sarah Pardee was born in Connecticut in1839. She married William Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Their one child, Anna, died in infancy, and when William died in 1881 of tuberculosis, he left all of his fortune and half the company to Sarah. Sarah moved to the west coast and bought a small farmhouse in the Santa Clara valley. Over the next decades, she added onto the house, creating the 160-room mansion seen today. She also maintained and expanded the property’s orchard, shipping dried fruit all over the world, and created a world-class garden.

There is no documentation to support any story of her fearing spirits or meeting with a medium. As for her decades of renovation, Sarah Winchester was one of the richest women in the USA during her lifetime, and everybody needs a hobby.

archway covered with jack o' lantern faces. In case you forgot this was a concession, here's one entrance to the grounds
In case you forgot this was a concession, here’s one entrance to the grounds.

Winchester spared no expense, and the house was filled with stained glass and expensive, beautiful, wallpaper, much of it of embossed leather. I spared no pixels in capturing those for you.

Three stained glass panels, floral design at bottom supporting an oval. Some of the windows that were in the house.
Some of the windows that were in the house.
Stained glass detail. Blue, white, gold and red flower design around a clear medallion.
Detail of panels above.

The wallpaper came from France. It’s heavy paper (I guess) with stamped leather laminated on to it.

white embossed leather wallpaper with a zin yang sign style set of spirals

In the “spooky Sarah” stories, much of made of her “obsession” with a spider web design. Our tour guide touched on it without mentioning that the web was a popular design motif. Here is one of the several “web design” windows.

Stained glass, teal, orange, blue, white and gold, a web design with scattered orbs. One of the prettiest web windows.
One of the prettiest web windows.

I think I mentioned that this is a re-creation, with no requirement to realism. Next up, Sarah’s beautiful bedroom. I’d call it a suite. The space is exquisitely staged, and none of the furniture in the room is original to the house. The concession’s curators have done a good job of capturing the time period and the level of luxury.

Sarah Winchester bedroom. Bed with large carved headboard at the left, a round table in the center, white settee against the windows.

Workers, inside and out, were always busy in the Winchester household, and the place was a working orchard. Winchester had the bell in the bell tower rung for breakfast and lunch for the workers.

Bell tower, peaked roof, red circular shingles.

We took the Mansion Tour and the Explore More Tour which requires a hardhat, since even if you’re short, you will crash headfirst into one of the overhead pipes in the basement. (Ask me how I know that.) The Explore More Tour took us up into the attic area as well, where they store a lot of the design elements. Here, for the only time, we were allowed to touch samples of the wallpaper.

Against a sunlit window, wooden curves and arabesques, part of the mansion's design features. On of my favorite pictures.
One of my favorite pictures.

Time, physical health and budget permitting, investing in more than one tour is a great idea, and the Explore More Tour is fun. When we were there Covid precautions were in full force. Masks were required, and food concessions were closed. If you are going to do more than one tour, bring water and snacks for in between (no eating, drinking or flash photography on the tour).

We stayed overnight in San Jose. Our hotel was… worth a good story, but do NOT stay there. Don’t believe me? Read the reviews, especially starting in 2021.

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