Sarah Winchester’s Legacy of Shopping Centers and Cinemas

Get ready for the second century of Winchester myth-making as a new horror movie brands San Jose’s best-known tourist attraction as “the most haunted house in history.” The new claim will place it in such distinguished company as the Amityville House, the Villisca Ax Murder House, Southern Italy’s Castle of Otranto and the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining.

No proof is offered to support the boast, but hey, this is 2018. The throngs clomping through the twisted corridors of our city’s most infamous gift to popular culture will surely grow. Bigger than the crowd at the largest inauguration in history.

The Winchester Mystery House won’t reveal its attendance, an order that comes “from up top,” according to spokesman Jake Williams. Ninety-five years after Sarah Winchester’s death, her side project of a house—the shambolically designed 160-room Queen Anne Victorian whose actual name was Llanada Villa—draws eye rolls from locals but continues to hoover tourism dollars.

Williams helpfully offers that the annual visitor count is “in the six figures.” Which means that at $39 per adult ticket plus revenues from the gift shop, events and film licensing, the top line is either in the mere millions or in the tens of millions. Team San Jose, the city’s visitors bureau, has no data either. A Ouija board might provide some answers.

The county tax collector’s website reveals that the address pays about 30 grand a year in pre-Prop. 13-pegged property taxes, which wouldn’t cover the rent on a one-bedroom apartment across the street at Santana Row.

Last Sunday’s tours were overbooked and running 20 minutes late. A white-haired man bumped from one slot tried to jump the line for the next one and challenged a parent holding a toddler at the front of the line to “take it outside” when he didn’t get his way. Good thing the rifles handed to guests for the $40 souvenir green screen photos weren’t loaded; tempers run hot in January.

Just months after Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922, her niece sold the house for $135,000 to a real estate investor who leased it for 10 years to John and Mamie Brown. The Browns moved onto the property in 1923 and within five months of Winchester’s death commercialized the house as a roadside attraction. The following year, Harry Houdini visited the odd mansion. The newspaper clipping about his visit called it the “Mystery House.” Winchester’s supposed dalliances with spiritualists were crafted into a narrative about the supernatural.

Winchester’s fruit orchards were, over time, developed into a few billion dollars’ worth of real estate. The 161-acre ranch with olive and apricot trees gave way to a multi-dome cinema complex, the Westfield Valley Fair shopping center and the Town & Country Village shopping center, which was razed and replaced by Santana Row.

Cinema operator Ray Syufy built the Century 21 Cinedome on land leased from Brown family heirs. The introduction was likely made by a Syufy architect, noted modernist Vincent G. Raney, who married the Browns’ daughter. The Century 21 theater that opened in 1964 became a prototype for the later free-standing cinema domes, likely including the iconic Hollywood one.

Director Steven Spielberg was a senior at Saratoga High School when Century 21 opened, and he watched films at the recently demolished Century 25 on Saratoga Avenue; Ralph McQuarrie’s spaceship in the Spielberg movie E.T., some observe, resembles the illuminated domes.

For many years the biggest mystery was who owned the Winchester Mystery House. In 1987, the San Jose Mercury News outed Monte Sereno resident Ray Farris II, a Brown family member, as a principal. The Merc was not kind to Farris, reporting on slip-ups at his nursing homes as well as his arrest in Los Gatos for laying hands on a 9-year-old who upset his corgi and bichon frise.

No longer flying under the radar, 40 members of the old money Raney and Farris families were listed as signatories to letters in 2013 and 2014 that appealed for permission to tear down the “obsolete” cinema domes to make way for an “urban village” as part of a Santana Row expansion.

They were only partially successful. The three domes still stand and the Century 21 was deemed eligible for preservation on the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s a fenced car park presently for Stevens Creek auto dealers, so the sold-out Winchester movie opening happens this week across the street at Santana Row’s CineArts theater.

The Mystery House is making the most of it, meanwhile, screening trailers for the movie at the end of its tours. Its fast-cut editing and screams of terror will leave an imprint on the collective psyche—plan to hug your kids at bedtime if they see the movie—further monetizing a cheesy yarn that birthed one of the valley’s biggest real estate plays, and now a major motion picture.


  1. > the shambolically designed 160-room Queen Anne Victorian . . .

    > No proof is offered to support the boast, but hey, this is 2018.

    Since no proof is needed, I can report that a mysterious figure told me that Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails are hidden in one of the 160 rooms.

    Recordings of Trump’s secret meetings with Putin are hidden in another room.

  2. What does this sentence mean?

    “It’s a fenced car park presently for Stevens Creek auto dealers, so the sold-out Winchester movie opening happens this week across the street at Santana Row’s CineArts theater.”

    • I guess it means that since the Century theaters are no longer in operation and the property is leased to the auto dealers if you want to see the movie you will have to go to the movie theater across the street at Santana Row.

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