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TRAVEL: Sarah Pardee Winchester turned a San Jose, Calif., farmhouse into a mystery

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sarah Pardee Winchester came to the Santa Clara Valley in 1884 with just $20 million to her name. She purchased a modest farmhouse in an orchard, hired a slew of carpenters and began adding on, creating the curious place we kn...

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sarah Pardee Winchester came to the Santa Clara Valley in 1884 with just $20 million to her name.

She purchased a modest farmhouse in an orchard, hired a slew of carpenters and began adding on, creating the curious place we know today as Winchester Mystery House.

Construction continued 24 hours a day, every day, for 38 years, until Winchester's death in 1922. The carpenters stopped working the moment they learned of her demise, which is why you'll see some half-driven nails.

Or so the story goes.

Uncertainties surround both the rambling, uneven Victorian mansion that grew to 160 rooms, many unfinished, and the lady of the house herself. Winchester was famously reclusive and camera-shy. Just one photograph exists of her time in the valley. It shows her as an elderly woman, bundled up and sitting in a horse-drawn carriage outside her home.

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She didn't keep a journal and never gave interviews. The stories that modern-day tour guides tell were handed down, likely from the time Winchester's maze was first opened to the public in 1923.

"Mrs. Winchester started here with $20 million, and had $1,000 a day coming in for 38 years," says tour guide Duane Nash, who also works as a part-time schoolteacher.

"She was worth just $2.9 million when she died, with stock certificates and everything. The house's estimated cost was $5.5 million. So what happened to the money? We aren't certain. Some think she gave it away anonymously. Others suggest it's locked up somewhere in this house. Let's get the hammers out!"

Sarah Pardee married William Wirt Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune, in 1862 in New Haven, Conn. Four years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter named Annie. The child died a few weeks later, and in 1881, William Winchester died of tuberculosis.

Sarah Winchester was devastated. The two people she loved the most were gone.

Legend has it that a medium in Boston told her she was cursed by the souls of those killed by Winchester rifles. However, the medium said, if she were to go out West and build a house -- never letting the clatter of construction stop -- the evil spirits would be held at bay.

So the wealthy widow left New Haven for what's now San Jose, where she had relatives, and started building. Only one blueprint has ever been found. She supposedly drew up house plans on scraps of paper and tablecloths.

And when carpenters and craftsmen completed a room, she ordered another added onto it, making exterior windows into interior windows. And on and on and on.

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By the time Winchester died, her mansion had a half-dozen kitchens, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windows, 467 doorways, 17 chimneys, two basements, one window in the floor (or ceiling, depending on where you're standing), two ballrooms and a seance room, where good spirits helped her with the house's design.

"It's a very beautiful but very bizarre house," says Wayne Chaples, a tour guide for 11 years. "You'll notice many unusual things: Doors that go nowhere, a staircase that goes to the ceiling. Mrs. Winchester was a very brilliant woman who had no architectural training. There are a few building mistakes in the house. She wanted to confuse the spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles. She had high intellect. She was like Howard Hughes.

"Watch yourself," Chaples says. "The house is old, and it rises and falls upon itself. Look down before you step."

Winchester had windows installed in certain places so she could spy on her servants. After she developed debilitating arthritis, she had stairways narrowed so she could steady herself on the walls, and the steps replaced with gentle 2-inch risers.

Her favorite number was 13. Her favorite flower was the daisy. She designed 18 acres of gardens and oversaw 140 acres of orchards on her property. She loved birds and ordered an aviary built in her home.

"Rich women always had beautiful tropical birds. Poor people had chickens," says Chaples.

Winchester Mystery House, once the biggest mansion owned by the richest woman in the Santa Clara Valley, today lies between a domed movie theater and a mobile home park, both of which stand on land once belonging to her. Just across a busy street from Winchester Mystery House is Santana Row, a modern, high-end shopping and dining destination.

Winchester Mystery House is privately owned, supposedly by descendants of the family that bought the place after Sarah Winchester's death. Their identities are part of the mystery, apparently.

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The house is a California Historical Landmark, and it's haunted.

Michael Metz, who lives in nearby Campbell, visits Winchester Mystery House so often -- hoping for a ghostly sighting -- that he bought a $55 season pass.

"I'm not sensitive," he says, "but I'm interested in the paranormal and in the history of the place."

He's often heard the ghost stories told by tour guides.

"I've had my name called, once on the third floor and twice on the first, by the same woman," says Chaples.

"There's a figure that shows up occasionally, with a thick mustache and in overalls," says Nash. "Imagine looking down the hallway or around the corner and see a shady figure in the darkness."

Those who saw the shadowy form recognized him from an old photograph hanging in the gardeners' shed. He worked for Mrs. Winchester.

"Overall," says Nash, "he's a friendly ghost. I haven't seen him myself, and he hasn't been seen for quite awhile. Maybe two weeks."

Worth the trip?

Definitely. The craftsmanship in the finished rooms is exquisite, and where else will you see so many Tiffany windows? The basic $26 Mansion Tour takes you to 110 rooms, including parts of the house that were closed off after the 1906 earthquake shook much of Northern California.

We recommend the Behind-the-Scenes Tour ($23, or $31 when combined with the Mansion Tour) only if you're interested in seeing a basement (and the coal chute) and learning in great detail about how electricity and other modern conveniences came to Winchester Mystery House.

If you go:

Where: 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose, Calif.

When: Opens at 9 a.m. daily (closed Christmas Day).

Tour times vary; call the information number or check the Web site listed below.

Guided tours: Mansion Tour -- $26 ages 13-64, $23 ages 65-plus, $20 ages 6-12 (free for children 5 and younger); Behind-the-Scenes Tour - $23 ages 13-64, $22 ages 65-plus, $22 ages 10-12 (not for children 9 and younger); Grand Estate Tour (both the Mansion and Behind-the-Scenes tours) - $31 ages 13-64, $28 ages 65-plus, $28 ages 10-12 (not for children 9 and younger.) Annual pass is $55.

Tour details: Mansion Tour features 110 of the house's 160 rooms, 24 of which are furnished. Behind-the-Scenes Tour includes the fruit-drying shed, tank house, pump house and basement (hard hats provided and required.)

Special tours: Remaining 2009 Flashlight tours are 6:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Oct. 17, 24, 31 and Nov. 13.

Also on the property: Firearms Museum, Products Museum, cafe and a large gift shop.

Worth noting: Winchester Mystery House is not wheelchair accessible, but the Firearms Museum and Victorian Gardens are. Strollers aren't allowed on guided tours (stairways are steep and narrow.)

Information: (408) 247-2101, www.winchestermysteryhouse.com

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