Situated in San Jose, California, the Llanada Villa is famously referred to as the Winchester Mystery house due to its owner, Sarah Winchester, and the intriguing circumstances that led to the creation of the house as it is seen today. The Queen Anne style mansion features an eclectic collection of architectural elements that create what is essentially a Victorian maze within the externally unassuming house.
The house has been designated as a California historic landmark and serves as a popular tourist attraction, enough that it has featured in books, movies, plays and even serves as the inspiration for a ride at Disneyland.
The Tragic Tale of Sarah Winchester
The history of the house is deeply tied to its owner, Sarah Winchester, whose husband William Winchester was the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The story goes that after Sarah lost her daughter to marasmus, and then her husband to tuberculosis, she consulted a medium, who told her that her family was being haunted by all the people who had been victims of the Winchester rifles.
Sarah was convinced that the only way to protect herself was to build a house for herself and her spirits, and that if “the hammers ever ceased”, she would die.
The History of the House
Though the prevailing story is that construction on the Winchester Mystery House occurred uninterrupted from 1884 to 1922, when Sarah passed away, in reality, there were periodic breaks for both the workers and Sarah. Despite this, the house was constantly being added to and removed for over 38 years.
Sarah did not use any architects, preferring to add rooms, staircases, and other architectural features haphazardly, with no fixed masterplan. At one point, the house is said to have had about 500 rooms, and to have been seven stories high, though after the 1906 earthquake Sarah restricted her building to four stories.
Today, the mansion has grown from its original eight-room farmhouse to a sprawling 161 room mansion containing a bizarre collection of architectural features, such as staircases that lead to walls and ceilings, doors that open out into nothing, and even a room designed specifically for seances. The number 13 and spider webs are recurring motifs in the design – rooms had 13 windows, ceilings had 13 panels, and so on.
An Eclectic mix of Elements
In 1884, when construction first started, the Aesthetic movement was at its peak. The movement was created in response to the rigidity of classical Victorian art and architecture, and invited art and design focused on aesthetical expression, rather than functionality.
The Winchester Mystery House is a prominent example of this style, known as the Queen Anne Revival Style, featuring the picturesque, embellished and irregular features characteristic of the style, such as towers, patterned colored glass windows, and ornamental carving and textures. Many houses in the neighborhood displayed similar styles, and future additions to the house all maintained the same architectural language.
Many features of the Winchester Mystery House were well ahead of its time. The house had a floating or compensated foundation that lent itself to sustain the weight of constant addition that the house underwent, and is probably what saved the house from total collapse during the 1906 earthquake. The 47 staircases within the house were specially designed, possibly due to Sarah Winchester’s debilitating arthritis.
The house had its own water, sewer, gas, and electrical systems. It had 3 lifts, one of which was horizontal, and 13 bathrooms, though most were decoys and were not connected to the water systems. The conservatory had automatic devices to water plants and recycle water. Though 47 fireplaces exist, there are only 17 chimneys, not all who open to the outside. Forced air heating and indoor plumbing, both features of the house were rare at the time.
In keeping with the architectural style, most of the windows in the Winchester Mystery House were carefully detailed. The beautiful stained glass was originally thought to be a creation of Tiffany, but recent renovations have revealed that they were custom-designed by the Pacific American Decorative Company, based on her own designs. However, many of the windows were installed in rooms that today are within the house, away from the light, and so their full effect cannot be appreciated.
In total, 10,000 panes of glass were created for the house, though most are held in storage when the windows they were meant for were modified. Some windows were repurposed into skylights, to allow light into the deeper areas of the house.
Interior Finishes and Furnishes
Sarah took inspiration from multiple cultures, such as Persian and Japanese detailing. Gold and silver chandeliers hang down. A muted color scheme allows the intricate detailing to shine. Though the primary material was redwood, Sarah is said to have disliked how it looked, therefore applying a faux grain and stain.
Most of the walls were finished with elaborate green Lincrusta wallpaper and detailed wood and brash carvings as embellishments, which was a common feature of the Aesthetic Movement that inspired the Winchester Mystery House. The recent discovery of a new room has allowed greater insight as to the finishes used in the house.
After Sarah died, Construction finally stopped for good on the Winchester Mystery House. The house is now advertised as a tourist attraction due to its confusing, spooky architecture and history. Recently, however, restoration efforts were conducted to try and restore the beauty of the original architecture, much of which was lost to time or the earthquake.
Today, of the 161 rooms, about 110 are open to the public. Much of the restoration uses pieces and materials from the house’s storage, where many features such as window panes, doorknobs, lintels, and so on are carefully stored, as are rolls of wallpaper and redwood that Sarah ordered but never used. Beautiful rooms like the ballrooms can now be seen in their authentic glory.