I love an odd place, me.
Like everyone else who’s read American Gods, I completely fell for the House on the Rock: it’s so out there, it can only be fantastic.
However, I think there’s somewhere that tops it for sheer, ludicrously out-there laa-laa loopiness. The Winchester Mystery House.
Built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester (yes, that Winchester) after his death, it was never finished in her lifetime–although there’s more to this than you might at first imagine, because construction began in 1884 and continued non-stop until her death in 1922, after which it became a tourist attraction.
Neither of these facts are surprising when you realise that the house has around 160 rooms (although it’s thought that as many as 500 were originally constructed, many knocked-down, remodelled or simply sealed up at various points along the way) and prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, clocked in at seven storeys high. Now, although it’s a more sedate four storeys, it’s still a sprawling monster of a place.
So why wasn’t it finished? Because, the legend says, it was never meant to be. If you believe the stories (and let’s face it, who doesn’t want to?) Winchester was contacted by a spirit via a medium after her husband’s death. In some versions, it’s William himself who speaks to her, in others it’s someone else. Either way, she was told that she must start building a house and never finish it: this was the only way to escape the curse laid on the Winchester family by the spirits who had died in front of a Winchester rifle. Whether the house was designed to house the spirits or confound them depends on which account you read, but regardless it sounds like an incredible place:
Many windows have 13 panes and there are 13 bathrooms, with 13 windows in the 13th Bathroom. There are also 13 wall panels in the room prior to the 13th Bathroom, and 13 steps leading to that bathroom. The Carriage Entrance Hall floor is divided into 13 cement sections. There are even 13 hooks in the Séance Room, which supposedly held the different colored robes Mrs. Winchester wore while communing with the spirits.
Here are even more thirteens: 13 rails by the floor-level skylight in the South Conservatory, 13 steps on many of the stairways, 13 squares on each side of the Otis electric elevator, 13 glass cupolas on the Greenhouse, 13 holes in the sink drain covers, 13 ceiling panels in some of the rooms, and 13 gas jets on the Ballroom chandelier. (Mrs. Winchester had the thirteenth one added!)
Mrs Winchester certainly was the superstitious type.
Apart from all the 13s (is anyone else getting a “Thir13en Ghosts” flavour from this? Just saying) my favourite story connected to the house is that of the wine cellar:
There may be a real treasure hidden away in the Winchester mansion. At one time Mrs. Winchester enjoyed the finest vintage wines and liqueurs. But one evening when she went to the wine cellar to locate a special bottle, she came across a black handprint on the wall. It was most likely a dirt smudge left by a workman, yet she took it as a omen and ordered the cellar boarded up. To this day the wine cellar has not been rediscovered.
Houdini was a fan and visited in 1924 (it was probably Houdini who gave it the name “Mystery House”) for a midnight tour. The house is also reputed to be massively haunted–perhaps unsurprisingly, given its background. It’s a maze of stairways leading nowhere, secret passages and blind corridors.
It even has a section known as the Hall of Fires: does it honestly get much cooler (see what I did there?) than that?
God, I want to go. I want to find that bloody cellar, for a start…..