A new Helen Mirren movie about a rich heiress who builds a strange mansion is based on real events. While it sounds like the real house it centers around was less about ghost stories than Hollywood makes it out to be, the place is still imposing.
Winchester’s trailer shows Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifle magnate William Wirt Winchester, as she builds room after room onto her mansion, trapping inside each of them the ghosts of those who died as a result of her husband’s firearms. This begs the question, how big are these rooms? Also, how much space does a ghost take up? But while Sarah really was the Winchester Rifle heiress, the ghost stuff is mostly lore that came about after she died.
The actual Winchester Mystery House, which began its 38-year construction in 1866, is in San Jose, California. Still standing today, it has 160 rooms and is four stories tall, although at one point it had up to seven floors.
Per Vulture, at the height of its construction, the house had 500 rooms:
The current structure …is filled with labyrinthine hallways, 40 bedrooms, six kitchens, 2,000 doors, 10,000 window panes, and oddly, 47 fireplaces with only 17 chimneys. There are also windows in the floor, and doors that lead straight into walls — including one from the séance room that opens up to nothing but an eight-foot drop, which leads directly down to a kitchen sink.
So it’s filled with weird doors going nowhere, unevenly-sized rooms, and maze-like hallways. This sounds like a real House of Leaves situation and I want no part of it. The house’s, uhh, “unique” features may have been the result of Sarah’s lack of architectural training, yet her insistence on doing the designs on her own. According to the SF Gate, “she had a hard time squaring her ambitions with conventional architecture. She parted ways with several architects before deciding to start drawing up plans herself.”
Another nugget from that article is that, although it never came to fruition, Sarah really wanted to build a moat and drawbridge on the property, too.
Still, when Sarah wasn’t building on more rooms to her giant house, she was giving tons of cash to charity and sometimes making her own money selling produce. She was also a generous employer, paying her staff three times the going rate for their work. Honestly, she sounds rad, and maybe I want to be her when I grow up.
Sometimes giant inheritances do go to cool (albeit eccentric) people.