In the early 1880's, Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Rifle Company fortune, visited a medium in Boston after her husband died prematurely of Tuberculosis. 15 years earlier, her baby daugher Annie had died of the mysterious childhood disease marasmus.
The medium explained to Mrs Winchesterthat her family and her fortune were haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester Rifles, and that the deaths of her husband and daughter had been caused by these spirits. The medium explained that to appease the spirits, Mrs Winchester must move out west and build a great house for the spirits. As long as the house was never finished, Mrs Winchester's life wasn't in danger.
In 1884, Winchester purchased an unfinished 8-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and hired builders to work around the clock on the house - which they did, 24 hours a day, until the day Sarah Winchester died peacefully in her sleep 38 years later.
At the time of Sarah Winchester's death, the house had 160 rooms, 2000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, and only one shower... and many, many mysteries and bizarre architectural features. Doors and Staircases to nowhere, Windows from the 2nd story floor, a cupboard that is only 1/2 an inch deep, and another that has 30 rooms hidden behind it. Only three people have passed through the front doorway - Sarah Winchester, and the two carpenters who installed the doors. President Theodore Roosevelt knocked on the doors once to pay his respects to Mrs Winchester, and was told by a gardener (who didn't recognise him) to go around the back like everyone else.
The Winchester Mystery House is a fascinating place, and some of its bizarre features come from the fact that Sarah Winchester, with no architectural experience, designed it - guided by the spirits. Each night, Mrs Winchester would hold a seance in the seance room. This room has only one entrance, but two additional exits - one through a one-way latch at the back of a wardrobe, and the other a drop down into a kitchen sink on the floor below. Each night Mrs Winchester would hold a seance there and emerge with the building plans for the next day. Each morning she would meet with the foreman John Hansen to discuss any new changes and additions.
So this is what you get when you build a house without an architect, without strategy or blueprints, and without an end-goal in mind. A fascinating but confusing and disorientating home that appeases those who don't have to live in it.
What happens when you approach organisational design and HR initiatives the same way? The same result. Your workforce strategies and practices may be elaborate, expensive, and hauntingly beautiful. For many organisations, they are guided by the "spirits" of best practice, case studies, and history. But it pays to remember, it's the employees, not the spirits, who have to live in the house that HR builds.
- The Winchester Mystery House - The Mansion Designed by Spirits , ISBN 0-9656992-0-X
- Stairs to Nowhere image © Winchester Mystery House, via Weburbanist
- All other images © Alex Hagan, 2013