Hidden Rooms and 'Dead' Spaces: help me find more pictures of this sort of thing!
January 13, 2012 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I've recently become fascinated by (a) long-forgotten "hidden" rooms in houses and other buildings and (b) "dead space" in houses, e.g., large unfinished areas behind walls that are only perhaps discovered years later. Help me find more examples of this sort of thing -- preferably examples with pictures!

Stuff like this is sort of what I'm looking for. Blog posts, newspaper articles, flickr pages...if you know of any examples of people doing cool projects to make use of otherwise-unused space behind walls, I would love to collect more links. Also, if anyone can point me to an explanation of why builders/architects leave such large spaces "unfinished" I'd be quite interested to learn the theory behind that sort of thing...maybe living in the Bay Area has warped my sense of space-efficiency, but it just seems like a terrible waste to have (in some cases) hundreds of square feet sealed up behind drywall!

Alternately, I'm also on the lookout for pictures and stories related to the discovery of long-forgotten "hidden" rooms or areas of houses. I recall reading a really cool example of this a while back -- I think it was a house in the Southern USA where someone found a whole wing in their house that had been abandoned and sealed up decades earlier. Just because that sort of thing is awesome, and because the likelihood of something like that being discovered in my own little 1954 ranch house is zero, meaning I'm on the lookout for some vicarious secret-room thrills. All links and references along these lines will be greatly appreciated!
posted by aecorwin to Home & Garden (69 answers total) 242 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Previously: Secret Places to Put Secret Things, especially the comments about razor walls.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:04 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in 'Priest Holes', which are secret compartments built into houses to hide Catholic priests during the period in English history when Catholics were persecuted.

Here's an excellent resource on Priest Holes, and here's a video of one. The only priest hole I can recall seeing was some years ago at Wythenshawe Hall in Manchester.
posted by essexjan at 4:10 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Someone around here found such a room!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 4:31 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a recurring dream where I am in a house and I find a door that goes to a whole new part of the house, a part that I didn't know was there before. Usually there is a cozy place to sleep there. I assume you know about weirdo stuff like the Winchester Mystery House and I'm not entirely sure if you're interested in stuff like this wacky tunnel digging guy in DC or this rediscovered Victorian kitchen or this secret room in India's national library or this break-in in a secret monestary hidden room via a forgotten passageway. A few more less interesting: couple discovers new house has secret basement filled with garbage, this one had a grow room, possibly, and obligatory reddit link.

The house my father lived in had a secret room that he only found when he was comparing the blueprints of the house as built to the house as he lived in it. Apparently when the people who had owned the house before him had created some built in bookshelves, they decided to just wall up the area under the stairs behind them instead of trying to build stuff into the area at an angle. In a 4000 square foot house, getting rid of 15 square feet is negligible. You can kick out a little panel in the back of one of the bookshelves and there's a dark little non-room there.

In addition to priest holes you might be interested in the underground railroad and smuggling tunnels as searchable terms.
posted by jessamyn at 4:35 PM on January 13, 2012 [21 favorites]

Have you read House of Leaves?
posted by codefinger at 4:40 PM on January 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: There was a hotel in St. Louis that, as I understand it, was actually three or four different hotels from the heyday of Rt. 66 that got connected and Tudorified. It was weird because if you took the right route through the agglomeration, you could start out on the second floor, wander around for a while, go down a flight of stairs, wander some more and end up on the third floor.

I used to be part of the staff of a science fiction convention that used this facility, and at one of our planning meetings it was announced that if anyone wanted to get a room closer to the lobby and function rooms, they had just found eight new rooms. "Found?" we all asked.

Apparently, at some point there was an area with a very wide hall and some rooms off to one side. At some point the hall got divided in half so that the part with the rooms dead ended when the wide hall choked down. At a later point, maintenance was going to close off one end of the part with the rooms to make some little continental breakfast area and open up the other end. Then someone got fired. They they forgot that there were a bunch of rooms that got sealed off. Then, some time later, some junior manager type on his cigarette break looked up the hill at the windows and wondered what rooms they went to.

I think the area in question is somewhere in the part of the hotel you see at about 1:50 in the video.

It was demolished for a St. Louis airport expansion that was planned back in the days of TWA. Remember TWA?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:41 PM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My grandfather's house was a huge monster with 9 bedrooms and about as many chimneys in an extremely WASP-y community on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. One day my father and his brothers were playing outside and noticed an extra second-story window that didn't appear to line up with the interior. They repelled down from the roof with a makeshift harness and found a blocked off bedroom full of pre-civil war paraphernalia that was apparently used as a stop on the underground railway. The interior wall where the door should have opened up appeared to be unremarkable plaster in a weird bend of the hallway between two other bedrooms. Long story short they opened the room, donated all the artifacts to the local museum and now had a 10 bedroom house, which I believe they left as-was for a long time. Someone in my family wrote it up decades ago for the local news, I'd have to see if I could find more. This would have been in the early 1960s.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:42 PM on January 13, 2012 [14 favorites]

Have you read "The House With The Clock in It's Walls"? It's not really about this, but it captures the spirit and feeling of this.
posted by OmieWise at 5:07 PM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

By John Bellairs.
posted by OmieWise at 5:08 PM on January 13, 2012

When I was in college we were renovating the frat house and we found a secret storage space between two rooms. There was a bag of what appeared to be 20 years old pot in the space. We guessed it was a drug cache from back in the 70s. This was 1986 when we renovating.
posted by COD at 5:16 PM on January 13, 2012

There was a great youtube tour done by a real estate agent of a house that was used to grow pot, but I can't find it now.
posted by empath at 5:19 PM on January 13, 2012

Best answer: In September an enterprising criminal found this long-forgotten local tunnel that connected a house and an apartment building. Initially people got excited that it might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, though people later said it might have been used for Prohibition-Era rum-running.

A lot of cities have elevators in the sidewalk that I think used to be used to deliver coal to basement boilers? But the few that are left usually take in deliveries now. They look sort-of like entrances to subways with no steps or anything. In action.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:25 PM on January 13, 2012

In many college towns you will find old houses that who had their interior staircases walled up. In my old college apartment in Ithaca we found that the kitchen and the bathroom had too much space between them. We pulled the paneling off and found the old staircase behind the Sheetrock.

It became storage space for us but could have been much cooler if we were going to stay there longer.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:31 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder turns on the existence of just such a space
posted by canoehead at 6:07 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: No reference, but a story. I was doing a service call at a stately old mental hospital. I had been going there for years to do various things, and I had a pretty good idea of the layout of the place. This one day, my contact person had to grab something out of what I thought was a closet. When he opened the door, it opened into a long, dark, positively creepy hallway of an old patient ward. Complete with plaster hanging from ceiling and shadowy arched doorways. I almost peed myself, while my eyes did that Hitchcock perspective shift and I swear I heard that THX-like hallway to doom sound effect. Dude said "creepy, huh? That's where they filmed a scene from [some horror film]."
posted by gjc at 6:19 PM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My parents' house had a small secret/wasted room. It was a weird, lovely, ramshackle New England farmhouse that was built in maybe 4 chunks, starting in the early 1800s. The first chunk was a plain salt box room, and each subsequent addition was more involved until the last one which was sort of gothic gingerbread style, with a slate mansard roof and big dormers. In the hallway that lead to the upstairs part of that wing of the house (it was not a giant house or anything, 4 beds, but it did have 3 distinct wings) there was a funny piece of wooden wall that pulled off to reveal a windowless low room starting at about waist height, the floor of which was the old pitched roof of an earlier version of that end of the house, complete with intact ancient ceder shake shingles. It was perhaps 20 feet deep and 5 feet wide. Barely tall enough to stand in, but you had to boost your way in and stand on non-level floor. We stored our board games in there, but also used it to blow minds during sleepovers or parties. Man I loved that house.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:35 PM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

My in-laws live in a semi-detached house in the UK. There is an interior space between the two houses (goes back the full depth of the house, but only the lower story, and about 3 feet wide) which was originally intended to be a coal cellar. Then it got walled up. My in-laws own the half which is at the front of the house, the neighbours own the half at the back of the house. My in-laws are bonkers and have left it walled up, instead of using it to expand their living room like the neighbours did with their half.
posted by Joh at 6:52 PM on January 13, 2012

The Toolbox Murders takes place in an apartment building constructed to disguise a labyrinth of hidden tunnels.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 7:07 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a colleague who told us about his friends who bought a house, moved their family in, then discovered one day that there was a guy living in a secret room in their house. He knew their schedules and would come and go while they weren't around, had made copies of their keys when they moved in, etc. There was a trial after they found the guy, so it would be in the paper I think.

I'm trying to remember what city they were in so I can look this up - some southern city like Savannah or Charleston, I think.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:47 PM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: YAY, awesome responses! Some scattered comments to various things people have written thus far:

* I had read about the Victorian kitchen being discovered but couldn't find the link again (for some reason it seems like my google-fu is sucking lately) so thanks for the reminder!

* Re. the Winchester Mystery House, I've been there twice (heck, it's only about 2 miles from my house). Very cool, definitely worth checking out, and (if you're ever in the area and decide to go), I highly recommend staying at the back of the tour group (more time to poke around and take pictures, etc.).

* Re. razor slots in walls, that actually reminds me of something that IS relevant to my house! When we first moved in and were doing a lot of renovations, my partner (as he was crawling around under the kitchen to run some wiring) found a whole pile of old razor blades. The medicine cabinet currently in the bathroom doesn't have a slot, but as there's no way that cabinet is original to the house, probably the previous one did. I guess it didn't occur to me to consider that a "secret space" sort of thing, as it's not like the crawlspace under our house is any mystery, but it is pretty cool nonetheless that the blades were down there.

* I haven't read House of Leaves, but perhaps I should.

* dirtdirt: Holy crap YES, that sounds like an awesome house to have lived in! The "indoor roof" thing is amazing. I would have probably tried to live in there as a kid.

* gjc: whoah, that sounds straight out of the Silent Hill games. Creeeeeepy!
posted by aecorwin at 11:08 PM on January 13, 2012

Best answer: This is kind of mundane. In David Owen's book The Walls Around Us, there's an anecdote about detecting a blind area of the attic, breaking through, and finding a bathtub. The builder had been unable to fix a persistent roof leak and eventually "solved" it by leaving a bathtub in the attic under the leak and walling it in.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 6:14 AM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have a story about this:
When I was in high school our auditorium was shaped like a trapezoid, the front with the stage on it was shorter than the back with the entrance. Thus, the two sides of the auditorium sloped at an awkward angle and so whatever rooms were next to the auditorium had one wall which didn't hit the others at a ninety degree angle.
Next to one side of the auditorium was the band room which did have a weird wall. But on the other side of the auditorium was a wardrobe closet, the same incredible height as the auditorium but only around five feet deep. The back of the closet was drywall and plywood all the way up to the sky high ceiling.
My theater geek friends and I realized that there was a vast expanse of space behind the wall, so one day we pried off a piece of plywood, threw a ladder through the hole and went to the other side. There was a long and narrow room with ceilings the height of the auditorium, only about ten feet across at the widest but got narrower and narrower as we walked the hundred or so feet until we could no longer fit in the narrow space. There was an old mattress and some ancient cans of bud light with not much else. It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
posted by pintapicasso at 8:32 AM on January 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

My house, built 1926, has a cavernous unfinished space upstairs, accessible through a little door. I did find it during the inspection so it's not exactly "secret" to me, but it was still a bizarre discovery. You can go outside the two finished upstairs rooms and even climb up on top of them, with a few feet of clearance below the roofline. It made replacing all the old knob and tube wiring way easier since it was all still accessible. There's also another few hundred square feet of empty space up there with 12' of clearance to the roofline.

The best I can figure is that the upstairs rooms were finished after the rest of the house had been done and perhaps even on the sly, I removed a 3-foot tall stack of cardboard that had been used to package the insulation and some other building debris. It's perhaps possible they simply ran out of money to finish the rest of the upstairs, but it's so strange. The house has a gable front and the space behind it is all unused - why would you go to all that trouble?

I also removed a few old pre-ring-pull beer cans and a couple old mattresses, which leads me to believe that the kids who lived here back in the 50's (I met one of them, now in his 70's; he was 16 in 1955) had been up to some shenanigans.

I've got eventual plans to remodel and finish it all, but for the moment it's just this big extra space under my roof but not inside my house.
posted by lantius at 10:13 AM on January 14, 2012

detecting a blind area of the attic, breaking through, and finding a bathtub

! We have a friend with a small house in southern Maryland near Solomon's Island. House was probably built in the 1940s or 50s, then renovated in the 1980s-90s. A couple years after they bought the house, they realized there was a "missing" space between two rooms - they opened up the kitchen wall and found a narrow space just wide enough for: an old bathtub, fully plumbed in. Their theory is the renovators wanted to move the old bathroom and decided they could rotate the whole thing (ie using the existing toilet and sink plumbing, but building the new bathroom at 180 degrees from the original), and they didn't want to remove the old tub or tiling. So they just walled it up.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smaller than an actual room, but you may be interested in some of the things that people (supposedly) hide away in newel posts.
My own family lore claims that there is a bottle of wine stashed in the newel post of my parents' arts and crafts house which is one of three in the neighborhood made by a builder for his three daughters. Nobody has ever looked in there to check. I don't think any of us wants to discover it's not really true.
I am about to start major renovations on a place myself, and will try to do something like this if feasible.
posted by zoinks at 12:01 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think my house must have the same floor plan as lantius. We use the smaller part of the big empty space for storage. Someone had put loose boards across the floor joists, so if you are very careful you can walk in there. The big part is farther down and there aren't any boards on it, so we just don't go there.

There was an old antenna at one end - like a ham radio antenna. I think it's still there - how would we get it out? I like to think it's some kind of alien communication device.

I had a couple of contractors come out once to see if we could finish the space and use it to expand the bedroom or make a real closet. They both said that the way the electric and ventilation went through the space would make it impossible to reclaim any of it without huge expense.
posted by CathyG at 1:28 PM on January 14, 2012

Best answer: If you're ready to be creeped out a little, a house in Pickering (near Toronto, Canada) was recently discovered to have a dungeon in its basement - built to hold people in. The discovery made national news. Weeks later, the house mysteriously burned to the ground.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 1:37 PM on January 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

Things you find in your garden.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 1:48 PM on January 14, 2012

Not a secret room really, but a forgotten apartment in Paris.
posted by Think_Long at 3:20 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

My old house had a secret space similar to a newel post by the staircase. it was a small shaft drywalled in and topped with an oak panel. I discovered that the panel was loose while I was staining the wood. At the bottom of the shaft, about 4 feet down was a weird fur-covered horse toy. It was hard to reach because the shaft was only about a foot wide, so I just left it there. I screwed in a hook near the top so that I could hang a bag there to hide stuff in. When I sold the house last year, I made very sure that I didn't leave my secret hidey bag behind, but I left the horse. In the ten years I was living there, it had disentegrated a bit, though - all the fur was coming off, so it was starting to look quite gruesome. I wonder if the new owners have found it, and what they must think of it!

There was also a little secret compartment in the closet of an apartment I used to live in - just a small recess with a piece of plywood over it that was painted to match the wall, so it was hard to notice. When we moved my boyfriend at the time wanted to leave something odd there, so he attached a little fimo penis to a barbie doll, and hid it there. A friend of mine took the apartment after us and lived there for years without finding it. I wonder if it is still there?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:41 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recall being taken to a walled up staircase in one of the dorms at UC Santa Cruz, I think it was Cowell College, around 1990. You had to crawl through the ceiling in one of the dorm rooms and then back down into this room that housed a single flight of stairs and was sealed at both top and bottom. Most of the students knew about it but I'm assuming none of the staff did because it had been used as a party room for years. There were psychedelic murals on the walls, hundreds of melted down candles, and tons of beer cans and bottles and old bongs. I'm guessing it doesn't exist anymore because the internets have nothing about it.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:41 PM on January 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm reminded of this story from 2003, where a guy and his friends built a hidden 750 square foot apartment in a shopping mall, furnished it with stuff they stole from the stores when it closed down, and managed to live, undetected for quite some time.

Also, I'm surprised no one has mentioned anything about the Seattle Underground.
posted by crunchland at 7:07 PM on January 14, 2012

Server 54.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:47 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm reminded of this story from 2003, where a guy and his friends built a hidden 750 square foot apartment in a shopping mall, furnished it with stuff they stole from the stores when it closed down, and managed to live, undetected for quite some time.

Oooh. There's a J. G. Ballard story in which something similar happens.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:51 PM on January 14, 2012

Here's a nice size diagram of the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle in Chicago. If you're to take the diagram at face value, this particular plan had more secret spaces than known space. I think the Tribune created that diagram though so it may have been a bit of sensationalism. From this spooky blog article on the Holmes.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:12 AM on January 15, 2012

A few years ago, in Loughborough, they discovered secret chambers beneath the former home of John Heathcoat, a man who, in the early 1800s, had become a target of the Luddites after developing a lace-making machine. It's believed he may have built the rooms as a refuge in the case of another Luddite attack.
posted by orthicon halo at 6:01 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dennis Cooper did an excellent post on this subject a few years ago. I don't think it's been linked here yet?
posted by stinkycheese at 3:14 PM on January 15, 2012

Not so much a secret room as a sudden shock for anyone that leaned on the wall, but... the house I grew up in had a decent sized closet (esp for a ~100 year old house) in the "hallway" between the entrance room and dining room. It was a swinging door that was wallpapered over and, unless you knew it was there or were looking closely, it was completely camouflaged. I used to love to trick friends & visitors into leaning against it.

The same house wasn't built with a large basement. However, the previous owners (mostly their teenaged sons) extended the existing basement by digging a new one out from underneath the house. This was great. It gave us a fairly large basement with an extra bath & a built-in wet-bar. However, they didn't really build to any sort of code. The biggest headache for my mom was that the stairs were narrow and they had put in all the appliances while they were building... that old broken fridge is gonna be down there forever. And I wouldn't be surprised if there was a hidden nook or two. One year, the now adult children came to see their old house and told us stories of the treasures (beer cans, mostly, but also a time capsule) they had stuffed into and behind the walls.
posted by imbri at 5:45 PM on January 15, 2012

Response by poster: LobsterMitten: Re. guy living in the secret room, that actually reminds me of a movie plot but I can't for the life of me remember the name of the film. I recall it being a dark comedy of some sort, though.

Pintapicasso: whoah, that sounds weirdly like my high school, actually (well, the one I went to in CT before moving to CA). The band room had a weird unfinished brick-looking wall on one side, though that could just be a common thing in band rooms.

...come to think of it, though, my high school was pretty weird building-wise just in general. There was this empty, creepy hallway area behind the locker rooms that a classmate and I used to use to sneak out of gym class. It eventually connected up to the main hall system through a little-used stairwell; I remember there was always this loud whooshing noise in there, so perhaps it was some sort of maintenance-access thing. Still odd, though.
posted by aecorwin at 7:56 PM on January 15, 2012

Response by poster: OH, and 2 more examples I just remembered from homes of family members:

- My grandparents (who live mostly off-grid in rural Vermont) built a fairly large storage basement underneath a vegetable garden. There was a little wooden shed-thing with a door (and a staircase inside) to access it. I only ever went in it once, though, right after Grandpa had finished building it (and I live 3000 miles away from there now so can't easily go back and take pictures or anything, presuming they haven't filled it in).

- My great-grandmother (who lived in the same house she'd raised my grandma in in Milford, CT until she was in her nineties) had a little room in her basement that my siblings and I always used to call the "bomb shelter", though it would have been a terrible place to actually try and shelter oneself from anything besides perhaps a hurricane given it didn't even have a door. The basement itself had a furnished/finished section set up like a family room and (behind a little mini-bar window area) an unfinished area. To get to the "bomb shelter" you had to go through the unfinished area, turn a corner (in pitch blackness, unless you'd brought a flashlight) and then go through a doorway. In the "shelter" was an Army cot, one of those portable camping toilet/commode things (with a bag underneath -- and no, none of us ever tried to use it!), a bunch of ancient liquor bottles, an old first-aid kit, several bags of "Science Digest" magazine circa 1960ish, and (my favorite) a paint-can-shaped vessel labeled something like "Emergency Protein Food Product". I still don't know who "set up" the room that way but it seriously looked like something out of a museum. Very nifty.
posted by aecorwin at 8:08 PM on January 15, 2012

A couple from the Tube: London Underground engineers discovered a bricked-up corridor in Notting Hill tube station in 2010, replete with period advertising posters.

Wikipedia says engineers renovating Latimer Road tube station discovered a hidden mahogany staircase that led from the platform to a pub upstairs, although there's no citation and I can't find any links outside Wikipedia...
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 3:15 AM on January 16, 2012

Best answer: "I always used to call the "bomb shelter", though it would have been a terrible place to actually try and shelter oneself...given it didn't even have a door."

Most fallout shelter plans didn't have doors, but encouraged a hairpin-turn to avoid direct exposure to the outside. The worry wasn't protection from the blast (there, really, was no protection for such a thing), but the bigger issue was being directly exposed to the radiation from fallout and the explosion. As radiation can't turn corners without help, a turn was enough protection provided the walls and roof was thick enough. Early designers found that, if they required doors, people were likely to seal themselves in without concern for fresh air or being able to exit. Which leads me to a self-link, which might qualify as a hidden room along this line: a booklet from the DoD, on how to build a fallout shelter in your basement.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:23 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was visiting Birr Castle last weekend, and they had old photography darkroom dating back to the 19th Century that was only reopened in 1983, and is apparently the only darkroom to have survived so well for so long.

See "The Darkroom" here.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 5:38 AM on January 16, 2012

Thank you for a great question - which reminded me of a book I loved when I was younger - Go to the Room of the Eyes - it's fictional, but quite fun and it's one of the books that made me love old houses.
posted by peagood at 7:15 AM on January 16, 2012

I'm back - I just went to read more about the book, and it's based on a real home in Seattle!
posted by peagood at 7:16 AM on January 16, 2012

Jessamyn, I've had recurring dreams about finding hidden rooms all of my life. I went to a "dream analyst" who suggested that this might be about discovering hidden resources within myself when I think I've exhausted all my strength or my options. I like that explanation, so I'm sticking with it.
posted by tizzie at 7:45 AM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I love this abandoned missile silo that mefi's own nycscout wrote up recently.
posted by jillithd at 8:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was this MetaFilter post about a New York apartment that was remodeled to have built-in puzzles that included hidden drawers and panels.
posted by various at 10:32 AM on January 16, 2012

I had the same recurring dream as Jessamyn as a child, and since I was a little unclear on the difference between dreams and reality as a very young child, I came to believe that all houses had secret rooms and/or passageways. (This was abetted by the laundry chute in the house that I grew up in, which was small enough for children to fit through, and was therefore used when we were playing Star Trek as the transporter down to the "alien planet", i.e. the basement.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:52 AM on January 16, 2012

Also, Eyebrows, something I've heard from more than one person is that many of the (former) warehouses down on Water Street in Peoria have tunnels going down to the bank of the Illinois River, which were much in use in Prohibition, and that if you know the right people you can still get a peek in some of them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:02 AM on January 16, 2012

Response by poster: AzraelBrown: Whoah, holy crap...maybe my great-grandma's basement room *was* intended to be a "bomb shelter", then! My dad used to call it that too but I always figured he was being colloquial (as I always pictured such places as needing large, heavy, spaceship-airlock-esque doors). But it definitely had the "hairpin turn" thing, which made entering it feel weirdly like that scene in Labyrinth where the girl appears to walk straight into a wall but then turns a corner.
posted by aecorwin at 11:08 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I attended a very nice suburban high school built in the late 60s which had a large and well-equipped auditorium and stage as well as an active performing arts program. The kids who habituated the theater wing of the school spent a huge amount of their after-school time there, and since the auditorium was used for both junior and senior highs it was possible for kids to have an association with it lasting five years, from 7th to 12th grades. There was a major theater wing clique, with certain kids "owning" certain jobs (such as lighting director) for years.

Apparently, some of the stage crew kids discovered a forgotten space, used by the people constructing the catwalks, high above the stage. It was only about 4' high and maybe 10' x 10', but kids quickly figured out a way to get in and in short order the place was equipped with lights, posters, some cushions for sitting and reclining (since you couldn't stand up) and occasionally a cooler for refreshments. Almost incredibly, the place remained a secret for years; kids pretty much ran the theater, including replacing gels and lights, so adults rarely if ever ventured into the catwalks. Thus a privileged few were able to hide for a few hours during the school day and indulge in whatever recreation suited them, undetected by faculty.

Although I never saw the "secret room" (you really had to be "in" to be taken there) I knew folks who'd been there. It was claustrophobic and uncomfortably warm and stuffy, but the sheer coolness of its secrecy more than made up for the discomfort. A picture of it even made its way into the yearbook though few recognized it for what it was.

I was told that the place was only discovered during a massive auditorium renovation, at which point it contained only an old stack of pornographic magazines. Or so legend goes.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:28 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a large rental house in my city, about 8 bedrooms I think? Which actually has a sealed off ballroom. Yes, it's kind of obvious from the outside that there is a ballroom in there, but still... a genuine, huge ballroom, with balcony around the side!

So, the tenants in the house often throw huge parties, where all the attendees climb in through an outside window to the ballroom. Somehow they managed to get a couple of couches in there, and there has been various strange party themes, the elaborate decorations of which have all accreted on top of each other, stars and planets, sea life, and giant molecules designs.
I hope they are still having parties there - last I heard of it was about two years ago.
posted by Elysum at 12:43 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

A little backwards, but here's an MIT hack that disappeared the new president's office.

Our theater back at college was an old USO hall that was moved to its current location. It has a dirt foundation and the majority of the building rests on pilings, so there's a three or four foot crawlspace underneath. The trap doors on the stage lead to lumber storage underneath. However, there are other trap doors all over the building (including a secret door in the sound booth) that allows you to get just about everywhere in the building sight unseen.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:15 AM on January 17, 2012

I have a colleague who told us about his friends who bought a house, moved their family in, then discovered one day that there was a guy living in a secret room in their house. He knew their schedules and would come and go while they weren't around, had made copies of their keys when they moved in, etc. There was a trial after they found the guy, so it would be in the paper I think.

I'm trying to remember what city they were in so I can look this up - some southern city like Savannah or Charleston, I think.

If you come across it, please memail me -- I have a vague recollection of reading this, too, but I know not where.

My dad tore down his old ~600 square foot house twenty years ago and built a new ~2000 sq. ft. one. The architect pointed out that the old house's basement did not overlap with the new one's and to fill in the gap would have been about the same price as leaving it be. Thus there is a secret room in the house: if you squeeze past the furnace there is a gap in the wall about the size of a beer fridge -- passing through that you would find yourself in an empty room the size of a one-car garage, directly beneath the front hall entryway.

He sold the house a decade ago. I don't know if the new owners know about the hidden room.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:25 PM on January 17, 2012

What a great thread...

The dreams I have had regarding hidden rooms usually involve my grandma's downriver, MI home and its long basement. Some closet door leads to another smaller door, and then a hallway to another room several feet away, typically with either: trinkets of old on buffets (non-fine brush painted figurines of clay), or several of those buffets, or more long narrow hallways of dark wood with small windows, sun beaming in a bit.

If it isn't that house, it is a rather more detailed version of my other grandma's house. The 'hidden' rooms are actually rather out in the open, which is likely a result of my grandmother there not even letting us grandkids or even her kids into even the short hallway going in. But the hidden rooms would be well furnished bedrooms or just rooms with white, windowed doors. A crap ton of decor of spring colors between white, gray, green, and a bit of wood.

... but anywho, great thread. Glad I am not the only weirdo.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:39 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a totally amazing thread. I, too, have recurring dreams about finding hidden rooms or whole parts of a house that I had ignored or not noticed previously.

My grandparents lived in a old colonial house in New England that was built some time in the early 1700s. It had what my grandparents always referred to as "the maid's quarters", which was basically a complete second house attached to the main house, less grand, intended for the maids. There had been no maids for many many years and that part of the house had been left to gather dust. My younger sister and I were VERY fond of exploring it - and one day, we found that a panel in a dusty old closet slid open to reveal a fairly large attic room, with the floor at about 3 or 4 feet above the floor level of the closet.. There were some old papers from the late 1800s and a snake skin in there. SO COOL.
posted by Cygnet at 12:35 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

During college, I worked for a local school district, cutting grass and such. On rainy days, we'd do cleaning and light maintenance inside. One day, one of the long-time janitors showed us a secret staircase that went down under the stage in the auditorium/gym/lunch room. When the school was built, circa 1900, it was the high school, and there were showers and locker rooms located under the floor. They'd been shut up since probably the 50s-the school had long since been converted into an elementary school.

Sadly, they pulled down the school a few years ago and built a retirement home on the site.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:37 PM on January 18, 2012

This is a major plot point in Remember Me by Mary Higgins Clark.

I'm also surprised nobody's mentioned the Anne Frank House yet.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:06 AM on January 19, 2012

Great thread.

Edinburgh is a pretty interesting place. After the city walls were built, following the battle of Flodden in 1513, there wasnt any space to grow outward. So the city started to grow up. Although it's not obvious now, the city is build on a number of small hills (this is one long bridge, built on 13 arches).

The old town in Edinburgh is riddled with passages, vennels, odd little courtyards and strange angles and, as is the way of things; bits got blocked off, built over and forgotten. Including a whole street; "Mary King's Close". You can now go on a tour which takes you beneath the city, through a network of rooms and corridors, to this very quiet, dusty and eerie place.

The arches below South Bridge (first picture) are now fairly well known as 'The Caves' and 'The Vaults' (your top ghost tour destination) but their rediscovery is a little more dubious. I knew someone who 'helped' rediscover the vaults. He was employed by a character who rented out rooms opening off Niddry Street. My friend (a brickie), and a couple of mates wielding sledgehammers, would go into each of the rooms and knock a hole in each of the three walls and the floor. More often than nots, this would open into other rooms, corridors and vaults. Dark, quiet, forgotten places mostly. But occasionally breaking through into the sub-basement of one of the shops above on South Bridge. His job was to cover up these accidental breakthroughs. He also described just throwing away all the things they found, one room they broke into was lined with shelves, all piled high with tools, laths possibly, and unidentifiable objects. All of which were thrown into the foundations of a nearby building site. What a waste!

He described travelling through room after room, corridor after corridor in utter silence, utter stillness, deep beneath the city. He was certain that he was far below Bannermans at one point. Once he stepped off a corridor for a pee, and when he turned back not being able to remember which way he had come. He panicked for a moment, until he saw his footsteps in the dust on the ground.. .. .. ..
posted by BadMiker at 7:29 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, one of the co-op dorms at Stanford (Theta Chi?) had originally been a frat house before the hippies took it over. There was a weird little room off the basement accessible only through a little crawling entry that was referred to as the "Fornicatorium". Once upon a time we were flipping through some yearbooks from maybe the 50s or 60s and saw a reference to "the Forn" on the frat brothers' page. The more things change, the more they stay the same...
posted by Sublimity at 6:40 PM on January 19, 2012

BLDGBLOG, one of my favorite blogs, has repeated ruminations on this subject.
posted by hattifattener at 1:31 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In 1982 in Memphis, a high school student from a prominent family, Leslie Gattas, was kidnapped from her bedroom during the night. She was found four months later after being kept in the attic crawlspace of one of the largest churches in town. Her kidnapper would bring her out at night when the church was empty to eat and shower. She dropped notes whenever she could, which were found but attributed to pranks by the kids attending the church school. The notes were turned over to police, and they did search the attic, but the kidnapper had a space in the rafters he covered with carpeting and the police didn't find them. She was finally rescued when the church set up a trap using hidden janitors to find out who was stealing food. True story.
posted by raisingsand at 9:36 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

BadMiker, I visited those places when I first went to Edinburgh, spent several consecutive nights just going on those tours. Creepiest places ever, especially given the macabre history of the grand city.
posted by canine epigram at 12:35 PM on January 23, 2012

I am lucky enough to live near Roslin glen (famous for faeries), and Rosslyn Chapel. It is an amazing place, despite that Vinci joke. There are many stories about the place and it's hard to separate fact from 'enhanced' fact but one thing is certain; there's a vault under the building. You cannot get into it, but you can see the slab which covers the steps down to it. What's in it no-one knows, or no-one is telling; maybe 12 knights in armour, maybe spoils from the temple of Jerusalem, maybe Christian relics, maybe a Barr's bottle full of builder's piss and a crumpled copy of the Sun...

This isnt really about 'discovered' places, but I still get a thrill walking over the slab, wondering what lies beneath...
posted by BadMiker at 9:48 AM on January 24, 2012

Creative Home Engineering is the world’s premier engineering and custom manufacturer of secret passage systems and secure hidden doors. (previously)
posted by crunchland at 6:39 PM on January 26, 2012

When a friend of mine was out of town, some friends walled off the door to his room with drywall and painted it to match the rest of the hallway. They cut a small access hole at the top of a nearby closet that let into his bedroom, and the friend used it for quite a while. Apparently, he came home late from the airport, found the lack of a door, and then thumped his way around the whole outside perimeter of the room until he found the entry hole. He thought it was all pretty cool.

As for actual secret spaces, my brother used to own a house built in the 1700's. Some time later (I think in the late 1800's), it was moved down the street. During the move, the chimney collapsed, leaving what was for all intents and purposes a giant mechanical shaft in the two story house. My brother and his partner used the space for a built-in fridge that was flush with the wall, and a recessed stereo/tv cabinet. The rest of it was just sort of a combination dead space and pantry (the door into the space was in the kitchen - I no longer remember if they installed the door or if it came with the house). I threw a party there once, though, and some friends of mine ended up climbing and rappelling down from the attic. Like you do.

Another friend lived in a multi-apartment house that had once been a big single family house that had been an honest to god speakeasy during prohibition. There were stairs leading down to a small basement where the furnace and such were. But the wall of the stairs at the landing partway down to the basement could be pushed back and that revealed the branch of the stairs that led to the speakeasy space. There was a massive built-in safe the size of a small closet in the 'office' area of it. Supposedly there were escape tunnels that were sealed up years ago.

And once when I was an electrician back in the 1980s, I worked in a house where they were renovating a room and the renovations included building out a secret bookcase door that hid a nook in the room to use to store valuables. And to have a secret space in their house because who wouldn't.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:36 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I finally spoke to the friend that I heard the story from, about the family who discovered a squatter living in a hidden room in their house. More details:

This was in Atlanta in the early 1970s (possibly late 1960s). The story came from a woman who was the daughter of the family, and she would have been about 16 at the time.

The family moved into this old antebellum house and lived there for six months or a year, before discovering this man living in their house. The secret room was apparently made as a place to hide from northern troops in the Civil War. My friend didn't have details on what happened to the man afterward - if there was a trial etc. I've asked him to find the name of the family to see if we can locate original news articles but they may be so old that they're not online. I'll update again if I get more details.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:14 AM on March 19, 2012

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