centuries, the wealthy and powerful hid their greatest treasures around them, trusting none but themselves to keep money, heirlooms and works of art safe in secret spaces around the house. Bookcases that swung open when the right novel was pushed, fireplaces that revolved when the poker was lifted and paintings that rose to reveal hidden niches – all were featured not just in fanciful children's stories but also in real homes.
Today such features are less common. But a handful of homeowners around the world seem interested in bringing them back – either for their old purpose as an added layer of security, or simply, like 19th-century follies, as a talking point.
US architect Charles Page has designed seven houses with secret rooms or passages in the past six years (compared with none in his previous four decades working). “People like the novelty and to be able to hide certain places from sight, like workspaces which are completely filled with debris,” he explains. In his own home, for example, he has an “invisible” walnut door from his wood-panelled library to his “messy” drafting room.
Other clients, such as Eric Beghou and his 13-year-old daughter Cami, just want to have a bit of fun. “Charles said it would be cool if we had a secret room [and] after that Cami kept asking about it. So he designed a doorway covered by a bookcase that swings out to let you in.”
The room now houses a desk and a computer and “I do my homework in there”, Cami adds. “It's like something you would see in the movies. You wouldn't expect someone to actually have one. And my friends really like it. I used to play hide-and-seek with them and they would never find me, even though I would shout at them through the bookcase.
The device even fooled a building inspector. He “walked up and down the stairs and he knew something was wrong about the size of the rooms but he couldn't work it out,” Beghou says. “He still doesn't know.”
Steven Humble, founder of US-based Creative Home Engineering, which specialises in secret passage projects, confirms that demand is rising. In recent years, clients have commissioned him to build false bookcases leading to dens, playrooms or strongrooms; Bond-style hidden trapdoors through which pool tables silently emerge; and storage units with false shelves that swing away to reveal hidden chambers. In the Arizona home of Harvey Cook, he created a “panic room” of the type seen in the 2002 Jodie Foster film to sit invisibly behind a bookcase, which swings open when a certain book is touched. “I wanted a safe room and this was a good way to get one,” Cook says. “And it's great for the grandchildren. I take my son and his five kids into the outer room and ask them: ‘Do you want me to make daddy disappear?' Then he slips through the door while their backs are turned and they think it's magic.”
Another Creative Home Engineering client, Jacob Clarkson, wanted both a bookcase doorway and a hidden cabinet. “The bookcase leads to my wife's room which she wanted to keep private – keep the kids out – and this seemed a good way of making it more interesting,” he says. “When you press a copy of Gulliver's Travels, the door opens. We also have a niche safe, so when you twist the vase next to it, my family portrait rises up and reveals a thumb-print scanner. When you put your thumb on it, my gun cabinet rises up into the niche. It makes my firearms secure and all our friends think [both devices] are very novel. They set the house apart.”
Wine collectors keen to protect their bottles are also building secret cellars. Susan Miller Jones and her husband employed UK-based Spiral Cellars to create a 1,000-bottle space below their study, accessed through a wooden trapdoor that blends perfectly into the floor around it. “Whenever new friends come over, it's always ‘Oh my God! Look at that!',” she says. “It's not the world's most valuable collection but my husband does have a couple of bottles of Chateau d'Ychem tucked away for special occasions.”
Owners of older homes may find these types of spaces already built in. The monks of the Mont Saint-Odile monastery, perched high in France's Vosges mountains, only discovered there was a room and passageway hidden behind the cupboard of their library when 1,100 rare books went missing. Local teacher Stanislas Gosse had apparently navigated his way around the heavy, locked steel door with the help of a long-lost map.
Chris Wade was more pleasantly surprised to learn about the secret passage at his 1,000-year-old house, Sharsted Court. Behind one of the wooden panels in the “tapestry room”, there is a narrow staircase leading to another hidden entrance in one of the small bedrooms. “It was put in by one of the old dukes who lived here in the 1600s,” Wade says. “He would send his guests up to bed and then go up the secret stair to join one of the ladies. They were all very keen on having the odd mistress back then.”
The hidden, windowless room on the top floor of David Guest's three-storey, 16-century Tudor house was probably designed for more noble purposes. “People often say it was probably a priest's hole”, which is possible, he says, referring to rooms used to hide Catholic clergymen persecuted during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is accessed by squeezing under a large oak beam at the end of an attic bedroom but “no one told us about it when we bought it. We shined a light through a hole in the wall and we saw a whole new room inside.” Today, “it's of little practical use. Actually, I just use it for storage. But it's a novelty and captures the imagination.”
Traquair House, Scotland's oldest inhabited castle, also has a “secret escape” accessed via a small door hidden behind a bookcase and once used by priests and, later, Jacobite refugees. “We were a Catholic house and there was always a chaplain in residence,” says Catherine Maxwell Stuart, whose family has owned Traquair since 1491. A small, spartan room passed off as a storeroom served as chapel and home but when its occupant needed to flee an approaching Presbyterian mob, for instance, he could open the escape door and use an old, hidden stone staircase connected to the main one. “You can shoot down to the bottom in seconds [and] back then the river Tweed ran right beside the house so you could jump onto a boat and escape,” Maxwell says.
Nowadays, she and her family use the hidden stairs for entertainment. “Growing up here was great. It's definitely the most attractive aspect of the house for children. I've got a seven-year-old son and we had a birthday party the other day and the passageway was the most exciting aspect for his friends. They thought it was very spooky.”