The Undeniable Allure of A Secret Passageway, Especially if It’s Yours!
I ran across an article earlier today that immediately piqued my interest. It was about a 28-room house called Singer Castle that was built in the late 1800’s by the president of the Singer sewing machine company in the stunning Thousand Islands region of New York. It’s a stone fortress built on Dark Island that includes fascinating, spooky, or menacing features, depending on your outlook, such as hidden staircases, and used to have portraits of people whose eyes followed the moves of passersby, and even grates in the walls that allowed castle occupants to spy on its inhabitants. Personally, I find those features fascinating.
Perhaps it stemmed from my love of Nancy Drew mysteries as a girl or playing endless hours of the board game Clue, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve been entranced by the idea of secret rooms or passageways.
When I would move my Clue marker from the “Kitchen” kitty-corner all the way across the board to the “Study,” to me, it was much more than the physical motion of just plunking it down in a new location. My imagination turned my plastic plummy purple peg into a real life professor who stealthily opened a corner pantry door, looked both ways, and silently descended a spiral staircase. He then crept through a long, narrow passageway that eventually exited up and out through a sliding paneled wall visible only to the new room’s occupants.
Unfortunately, sometimes secret passageways and hidden rooms are used for evil purposes. If you’ve ever read the book “The Devil in the White City” or have heard about the “Murder Castle” in Chicago, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The building was erected as a hotel just prior to 1893 when Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, and was chock full of oddities like trap doors, false floors, and chutes that deposited their unsuspecting riders into the basement, and right into the arms of our country’s first famous serial killer. Apparently the building burned to the ground shortly after it’s owner was arrested, and a post office was built on the site, which remains there today.
Other times, however, hidden staircases and safe rooms are used for the power of good.
Years ago, we toured the House of Seven Gables in Salem Massachusetts, the setting for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous tale that goes by the same name. During the tour, we ascended a steep and narrow, secret stairway which led to a third floor where it’s speculated that slaves may have sought temporary asylum on their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad. I was spellbound thinking of the initial fear, then gratefulness and eventual much-needed rest and replenishment that once took place in that secret loft before its inhabitant’s long, harrowing journey continued on.
Even now I watch Downton Abbey and other productions based in turn-of-the-century England with interest as servants scurry up and down and all around via a maze of hidden passageways meant to hide the vulgar yet necessary functions of everyday life from estate gentry such as, forgive me for evening mentioning it, but removing soiled laundry from bed chambers and bringing them to the laundry.
Oh, the indelicacy of it all!
Regardless, the thought of a separate servant world moving in tandem with the owners, yet hidden behind stone walls, intrigues me. Highclere Castle, the real life name of Downton Abbey, has a secret passage or two itself as illustrated by this hidden door connecting the library to the music room.
Following suit, my dreams, often reflect my curiosity about this topic. In my most prevalent recurring dream, an old friend has come to visit me at our home and asks what’s behind a certain door. Unsure, I open the door to find a long hallway that leads to room after room, then turns around a bend, and ends in a massive recreational space that connects to our unknown neighbor’s home next door. I’m sure a Freudian dream interpreter would have a field day delving into the meaning of my REM sleep ramblings.
Okay, back to my awake life. We finished our basement nearly a decade ago. Before we began, the space was one long slab of concrete dissected solely by metal posts. After the renovation, there’s now a TV man cave area, a fireplace conversation pit, a pool table area, a washroom, a workout room, a playroom, and a storage room.
During the project, my husband, Jame, could not have cared less about the layout specifics other than that there had to be enough room to place a recliner or two a few feet away from the TV and enough room to take a shot at the cue ball from all angles of the pool table. Beyond those few requirements, I had free rein in terms of decision-making. I had a general idea of what I wanted each room to look like: as much light streaming in as an English basement could provide, a generous storage room where our off-season items could find a temporary home, a comfortable bathroom with a spa shower, and thick, warm carpeting in the room intended as our boys’ playroom.
Because my son, Logan, would be spending a great deal of time in the playroom and we had the ability to design the room however we chose, I asked my then 8-year-old to tell me about one feature that he really wanted to have in the room. And do you know what he said?
Much to my delight, he declared that he wanted a secret passage!
The little girl in me was absolutely delighted. After jumping up and down for a while, pigtails a’flopping, she began puzzling out a way to make his dream a reality.
And come up with a solution, she did.
Here’s the playroom.
It’s just an ordinary room. As the kids have grown, it’s slowly become more of a dumping ground for pieces of furniture that have outlived their usefulness in various places upstairs than anything else.
However, can you spy the secret passage?
Sorry, I’m teasing.
The storage room door is to the left, and the closet door is at the far end of the room. The secret is actually hidden in the closet.
Come on, I’ll show you.
Buried behind piles of pillows and stuffed animals . . .
. . . is a kid-sized door that leads into the neighboring storage room. It’s our answer to the kitty corner jump from the Kitchen to the Study in Clue, or the swinging bookcase in Highclere Castle.
Soon after the room was completed, Logan’s favorite trick was to tell a friend that he could transport himself out of the playroom closet just by saying “the magic words”. He would then ask the friend to give him a minute while he stepped into the closet and closed the door. Once inside, he’d grab a flashlight, crawl through the little, secret door, come back into the playroom via the storage room door, and just as the friend was opening the door to the closet to call his bluff, he’d tap them on the shoulder, causing them to jump halfway up to the ceiling.
“Zoinks!” and “Ruh Roh, Raggy!”
To Logan, the little door led to a beloved Scooby Doo-like secret passageway. To his young friends, it was a goose bump-inducing mystery until they were enlightened and then insisted on bringing an unenlightened friend over to experience the joy and intrigue involved with sharing the mystery with them as well.
While our simple secret door doesn’t come anywhere near the revolving bookcase and hidden stone stairways that have been tucked away in the mansions I mentioned previously, hopefully it has done its part to instill wonder and excitement in the children who played with it, has encouraged them to use their imaginations to their fullest, and has made them realize that thinking outside of the box, or the room as it may be, can lead to exhilaration and fun.
I hope too that when we eventually sell our home, a new child, flashlight in hand, will experience the thrill of stealthily opening the door, looking both ways, and then creeping through the storage room passageway and back out through the door, unobserved.