October 29, 2010
Spirits drove 38-year construction of Winchester House in California
Imagine a 38-year long construction project where the owner makes hastily designed, drastic changes daily. Some would say that is enough to drive a contractor to an early grave, but what if those same project changes came from beyond the grave to begin with?
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif., is that construction project.
It stands to this day as both a testament to Sarah Winchester’s pursuit of appeasing ghosts through endless construction and the craftsmanship of the contractors who kept building it.
“The whole house was so beautifully built, but she did things by the seat of her pants,” explains Denny West, maintenance manager of the house.
“They would build something, if she didn’t like it, they would tear it down or build over it. So, as you go through the house you will find walls that used to be outside walls that are now inside. It just kept growing and never quit for 38 years.”
The quirky Victorian ghost-haven home draws thousands of tourists yearly to marvel at its odd construction and architectural features. Among its oddities are cupboard doors that open onto walls, 30 walled-in rooms and a staircase with 44 steps and seven turns that climbs to the next floor only nine feet above.
“The house is built like a maze and all four floors have different levels to them,” says West.
“Several years ago, an architecture design and crafting class came through and tried to do a blueprint of the home and gave up in frustration.”
Winchester’s spirit-directed project started in 1884; three years after the death of her husband William Winchester, whose father patented the Winchester rifle hailed as the rifle that “won the West.”
When Winchester’s husband died from tuberculosis, she inherited nearly half of all the Winchester Company stock, an income of $1,000 a day and a lump sum of $20 million.
Winchester kept a team of about 13 carpenters working daily and on holidays. After 38 years of construction, the four-storey house boasts 160 rooms, 467 doorways, 2,000 doors, 1,257 windows, 40 stairwells, 40 bedrooms, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, three elevators and requires 20,000 gallons of paint for a single coat. Construction stopped in 1922 when Winchester died of a heart attack at the age of 82.
“You either did it the way she wanted or you hit the road. Her employees were very loyal and well paid,” West says. “She was the boss and there was no question about it.”
Legend has it that the construction plans changed after each séance Winchester held with the spirits of the Winchester rifle victims.
In the morning, she would present the new construction drawings to her carpenter team. West says their craftsmanship and skill is clearly evident. He points to the 25-foot-tall witch’s cap conical roofs on the house.
“Every board in those caps runs full length, from the bottom to the top and they all had to be cut like a wedge and be bevelled on both sides to fit,” he explains. “They did that and each one is the exact same size all the way around. To try and do that today, with the tools we have would be difficult. Imagine how they did that with hand tools back then.”
Restoration work now mainly centres on replacing shingles, old redwood gutters (which have downspouts that run inside the house’s walls) and skylight repairs. In doing this work, do today’s contractors every have run-ins with the house’s past ghostly project owners?
“From time to time, a contractor will say they wouldn’t want to work here at night,” West notes.
“Obviously, if there is something going on here it is pretty benevolent because we have never had any problems or injuries over the years.”
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