I want to tell you a different side of the story about one of San Jose’s most interesting characters, Sarah Winchester.
If you go to visit the Winchester Mystery House, you will see a magnificent home of 140 rooms. You will be told stories of the mysteries surrounding this kindly lady and how she built stairs that had only two inch risers; how she built bathrooms with clear glass door panels; how staircases were built that went nowhere; how she had midnight parties with musicians playing in the grand ballroom, but there were no guests.
Sarah Winchester came to San Jose from chilly New England in 1884, the same year the Electric Tower was completed in downtown San Jose. Her infant daughter had died when she was but a month old, followed fifteen years later by her husband William, the Winchester Rifle heir. These deaths were devastating to the young, talented, intelligent Sarah. As she was troubled with debilitating arthritis, her doctors suggested she leave the terrible East Coast winters and find an occupation to keep herself busy.
Thus she traveled to the delightful Santa Clara Valley and purchased a six room house on the outskirts of San Jose. Soon she hired men to enlarge the house, becoming her own architect. Each morning she would take a large sheet of butcher paper, consult with her carpenter foreman, and plan that day’s work. The next morning they turned the paper over and discussed what would be done that day. Because of the daily change of plans, exterior walls soon became interior walls. Steps were built on staircases that were only two inches high because that was all her arthritic legs could manage. Her late-night parties were held at the only times the musicians were available—after they had worked their gigs at downtown San Jose theatres or dances. During this time, the 1890s, there were terrible economic depressions, but Sarah Winchester paid top wages and kept a full crew working no matter what the economic times were.
In 1906 the terrible earthquake ravaged her house and it suffered major damage. She was trapped for many hours in an upstairs bathroom, and her servants could not find her. She then decided that there would be clear glass in the bathroom doors so that if another disaster occurred she could be located.
When you visit the house, carefully examine the state historical marker. You will find it reads “The Winchester House,” not “Winchester Mystery House.” The lady that lived there and created this beautiful home was a tragic but generous, inventive woman. She demanded her privacy and greatly benefited our beautiful Santa Clara Valley.