The Winchester Mystery House


Winchester House, 525 South Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, Santa Clara County, CA.

“One of the peculiar traits of Hill House is its design—”

“Crazy house at the carnival.”

“Precisely. Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around? An ordinary house would not have had the four of us in such confusion for so long, and yet time after time we choose the wrong doors, the room we want eludes us. Even I have had my troubles.” He sighed and nodded. “I daresay,” he went on, “that old Hugh Crain expected that someday Hill House might become a showplace, like the Winchester House in California or the many octagon houses; he designed Hill House himself, remember, and, I have told you before, he was a strange man. Every angle”—and the doctor gestured toward the doorway—”every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”

They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.

“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off centre—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held…”

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson.

I re-read Shirley Jackson’s novel a few months ago but neglected at the time to follow-up the reference to the Winchester House. News this week that Sarah Winchester’s sprawling folly in San Jose is to finally allow overnight stays prompted some investigation. The most remarkable thing about the Winchester Mystery House is that it’s much more of an oddity than its fictional relation, if you overlook (so to speak) the fact that Shirley Jackson’s house is a home to malevolent spectres. Sarah Winchester was heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and instituted a process of continual and completely uncoordinated house-building for thirty-seven years, believing that this would confound the ghosts of those killed by the weapons bearing her name. Among the house’s 160 rooms are extraneous chambers and closets, doors to nowhere, and stairways serving no purpose. The spirit-trapping decorations include repeated spider-web motifs, and a recurrence of the number 13; one room at least was originally a Séance Room. This blog post concerns a tour round the house as it is today, while the Library of Congress has a number of views of the place.


View looking west from top floor.

It’s unfortunate that the house was built in California’s earthquake zone, the structure had reached seven stories until the 1906 earthquake forced the removal of the three topmost floors. I had to go looking for views of the pre-quake building, and happily there are a few preserved on old postcards. When Blue Öyster Cult chose Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House for the cover of their Imaginos album they certainly picked the more immediately photogenic building, but the Winchester Mystery House a few miles to the south has it beat when it comes to metaphysical cachet.

The Winchester Mystery House at Pinterest.



Previously on { feuilleton }
The Cliff House revisited
Adolph Sutro’s Gingerbread Palace

8 thoughts on “The Winchester Mystery House”

  1. Wiley: I only have a couple of Marsden books, and the places in them are mostly Britain and Ireland. He did photograph in the US, however.

  2. The only one of his I have is the one shot in Venice, which is lovely to say the least. The one I’d most like though is the book of pictures he took in the former Soviet Union.

  3. After going on a tour as a child the door that would lock you into a room if you shut it behind you haunted my nightmares.

    Went back a few years ago as an adult–if not exactly the place of nightmares any longer, it’s a delightfully eerie location, both beautiful and more than a bit sad.

    It also possesses, if I remember correctly, one of the largest private collections of Tiffany glass windows–none which were “properly” utilized (ie, places where the sunlight would shine through them), and most which ultimately sat unused in storage. It’s quite the place!

  4. The house also features in Brian Catling’s excellent novel The Vorrh which I expect would appeal to many readers of this site if they aren’t already familiar?

  5. Jesse: There’s quite a few photos of the Tiffany windows on the Pinterest page linked above.

    steve57: I know of Catling’s book but I’ve yet to read it. I’m surprised the Winchester House is mentioned, I would have expected it to be more concerned with London. The house also appears in Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers.

  6. American action in The Vorrh happens with Eadweard Muybridge – which I was lucky enough to be familar with after being dragged to the Tate show of his landscapes a few years back.

    I’ll look into the Tim Powers – I find his work very hit and miss, but when he’s ON he’s amazing (for me, Declare and Three Days…)

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