Winchester Mystery House

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 9.21.08 PMKnaresboruough, Yorkshire a stairwell that leads to nowhere

Recently, I was a sent a link to this website that depicted 22 stairs that lead to nowhere. While I wrote a similar post here I focused on stairways conceived by artists that were never intended to be functional in the traditional sense;  the stairways in this post were built, at one point,  I can only assume, with the intention of having a utilitarian purpose.  After looking at these stairs I was reminded of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The House, which was started in 1884, is a four-story mansion that was deliberately designed as a labyrinth by Sarah Paradee Winchester.


After the death of Sarah’s husband, and until her death 38 years later, Sarah employed carpenters and craftsmen  24 hours a day to build and (re)construct her home. Heiress to her husband’s fortune, the Winchester Repeating Rifle empire, she believed, after a visit to a spirtual medium, that her family was cursed and haunted by all of the people that were killed by the guns manufactured by the business. The medium told Sarah that the spirits were seeking vengeance, and the only way to appease them was to not only build a house for them but that she should never complete it.

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 8.45.17 PM

Sarah Winchester, was her own architect, and thought that she could ‘trick’ the spirits from finding her by creating a disorientated labyrinth filled with secret passage and stairs and doors that led to nowhere.  Doors would open onto walls, or in the case of a second story door, to the outside. A closet door on the second floor séance room opens onto a first-floor sink several feet below. Some stairs reach the ceiling, and then they just stop.  The Switchback Staircase, only rises 9 feet but has 7 flights and 44 steps that each measure about 2 inches high.

In 1884, when Sarah purchased the house, it was a  nine-room farmhouse and at one point housed  over 500 rooms.The house had even reached seven stories by 1906, but the top three floors collapsed after the famous San Francisco earthquake. Some of the other structural oddities to the house was its 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, two basements, six kitchens, 10,000 window panes and 467 doorways.

stairs to nowhere
door on 2nd floor

boarded up doors


Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 8.17.46 PM
I wanted to highlight a couple of artists who also created installations that play with the notions of  “real” and  “fake.” They create objects that  convey an appearance of reality, a constructed illusion – not reality but a fiction of reality. In 2006, French artists Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin installed a door in the city of Paris—but it was a fake door, leading nowhere, on an otherwise empty wall in the 3rd arrondissement.
Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin, Les Specialistes, 2006
Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin, Les Specialistes, 2006
Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin, Les Specialistes, 2006
berthiers_door04Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin, Les Specialistes, 2006

In Powerless Structures, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset  explores and redefines space and its numerous possibilities of definition and function. Their approach is based on Foucault’s thesis, that it is the acceptance of certain behavioural patterns, within given structures, and not the structures, themselves, that restricts human action and activity.
Elmgreen and Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 123, 2001
Elmgreen and Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 123, 2001
Leandro Erlich creates spaces with fluid and unstable boundaries. A single change (up is down, inside is out) can be enough to upset the seemingly normal situation, collapsing and exposing our reality as counterfeit. Through this transgression of limits, the artist undermines certain absolutes and the institutions that reinforce them.
Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 9.53.22 PM
Leandro Erlich,  Window and Ladder – Too Late for Help, 2008
Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 9.16.39 PMLeandro Erlich,  Window and Ladder – Too Late for Help, 2008
Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 9.16.14 PMLeandro Erlich, The Staircase, 2012
Leandroerlichstairs02Leandro Erlich, The Staircase, 2012

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