10 Eccentric Homes With Hidden Passageways

Batman, seen here in the hidden passageways of the Batcave, would be perfectly at home at the Fairmont Hotel.
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

If you ever find yourself in San Francisco with an extra $10,000 to spend, you might consider checking into the Penthouse Suite at the Fairmont Hotel. For that $10,000, you have your run of the entire eighth floor of the hotel, which includes three bedrooms, a dining room that seats 50 people, a billiards room, a bathroom with 24-karat-gold fixtures and a two-story library [source: Valhouli]. And on the second floor of the library, if you know just where to press, you can access a hidden passageway and live out your favorite Batman fantasy.

But if you put that $10,000 toward installing a hidden passageway in your own home, then you could act like a superhero whenever you wanted. Hidden passageways aren't just for detective novels and comic books; they are increasingly showing up in private homes [source: Summers-Sparks]. The 10 homeowners on this list decided a hidden passageway was a home design feature they just couldn't live without, though you'll have to judge for yourself how that turned out for them. After all, the hidden passageways on this list were used for everything from romantic assignations to alleged murders.


Read on to find out about these eccentric homes, and see if it's worth adding a hidden passageway to the requirements for your dream house. We'll get started with one millionaire who concealed himself to spy on his friends. Find out who this sneaky homeowner was on the next page.

10: Singer Castle

The sewing machine that built a castle -- a Singer from 1854.
Rischgitz/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was 1896 when Commodore Frederick G. Bourne decided he needed a summer home and hunting lodge. As the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, he had the money to build a five-story castle on Dark Island in the St. Lawrence River of New York. And what's a proper summer home and hunting lodge without an icehouse that facilitates turn-of-the-century entertaining, a library to hang the heads of your game trophies, and of course, secret passageways and a dungeon?

In Bourne's lifetime, the castle was known as The Towers, but in recent years has been renamed Singer Castle. Unlike some of the more nefarious purposes that hidden passageways serve in the other homes on this list, Frederick Bourne apparently had a very simple reason for wanting them. Like many of us, Bourne wanted to know what his guests really thought of him, so his secret passageways allowed him to subtly escape a gathering to spy on the party.


If fellow self-made millionaires Cornelius Vanderbilt and Vincent Astor were over, Bourne might have slipped through one of the wooden panels in the library to access the stone spiral staircase. From a floor above, he could sit in a corridor and peer through a metal grate at his visitors. From that height, no one would have noticed if a large painting on the wall suddenly tilted a bit; Bourne would have pushed on it to listen in on the chitchat below [source: McCarron]. If Bourne wasn't in the mood for eavesdropping, a hidden passage also led to the wine cellar.

Remember those nefarious purposes I mentioned earlier? Click ahead to read about the hidden passageway that allegedly allowed one homeowner to have countless affairs with Hollywood starlets.

9: Wolf's Lair Castle

It can be hard to find the right room for your gibbon.
Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images

Wolf's Lair Castle in Hollywood, Calif., was named for its designer, art director L. Milton Wolf. Wolf wanted a replica of a Norman castle, complete with a turret designed especially for his pet gibbon [source: Pavlik]. In addition to the gibbon's dwellings, there are eight bedrooms and six bathrooms between the main house and the guest house, as well as a heart-shaped pool and a speakeasy. The house was constructed in 1927, so the speakeasy provided a quick refuge during the bans of Prohibition.

From Wolf's Lair Castle, you have an incredible view; you can see downtown Los Angeles, Catalina Island and the famed Hollywood sign. What you won't see is the hidden passageway between the main house and the guest house. According to the gossip of the day, Wolf put a secret apartment beneath the guesthouse so that he could indulge his taste for young Hollywood starlets [source: Brenoff]. The womanizer would take the secret passageway to meet his dates while his unsuspecting wife snoozed only a few hundred feet away.


In June 2008, the property went on the market for $7.5 million, but musician Moby bought it for just $4 million in 2010 and then put about $2 million in restorations into it [source: Wadler]. It was likely a better buy than the next eccentric home on our list, which has passed hands many times over the years due to a little problem with ghosts. Find out who might have used his secret passageways to carry out murder on the next page.

8: Franklin Castle

Could you live with the ghosts of murdered women?
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nothing earns a home the reputation of eccentricity quite like rumors that it's haunted. So we come to Franklin Castle, in Cleveland, Ohio, which was built in 1865 by a German immigrant named Hannes Tiedemann. Tiedemann had done quite well in various businesses that included barrel-making, banking and grocery stores, so he spared no expense in building the home for his wife. Once in the home, the family quickly grew to include several children.

Then the children began to die. As the whispers started circulating through town that perhaps there was more to these deaths than met the eye, Tiedemann decided to build on to the house to distract his wife from her grief. Apparently Tiedemann thought that what his wife really needed were features like turrets and gargoyles, which made the home look even more like a castle. He put in hidden passageways and secret rooms all around the house, as well as a ballroom that spanned the entire length of the structure.


But the redecoration didn't stop the deaths. One legend has it that Tiedemann hung his teenage niece from the rafters in a hidden passageway off the ballroom, either because she was insane or promiscuous [source: Taylor]. Tiedemann may have also murdered a servant on her wedding day because she would not return his amorous advances [source: Lane]. Their ghosts may haunt the home. The only decent use of the passageways may have been by Mrs. Tiedemann, who used them to visit with her children away from the ill-tempered Mr. Tiedemann [source: Lane].

The weirdness didn't stop with Tiedemann, though. The home was later used by the German Socialist Party. It's said that the voices sometimes heard in the halls might be those of the 20 party members who were supposedly gunned down in one of the secret rooms. When the home was used as a boarding house, one occupant found a secret room that contained dozens of skeletons of human babies. A doctor could only conclude that the bones were indeed human and very old, but some speculated that they had been victims of botched medical experiments [source: Taylor].

Franklin Castle has passed through the hands of numerous owners since the 1960s, some of whom have complained about troubles with ghosts and odd occurrences. But any odd occurrences at the next home on our list were probably manufactured by its owner. Turn the page to find out about the ultimate in haunted houses.

7: Britannia Manor

If you play Ultima Online, a series of online role-playing games, then you may know Richard Garriott as Lord British. Lord British is the in-game avatar of Garriott, a computer designer and programmer. And Garriott isn't just Lord British online; when he hosts his famous haunted house at his Austin, Texas, mansion, he does so in Lord British garb.

Even when it's not Halloween, Garriott's house, Britannia Manor, is an interesting place to be. The 4,500 square feet (418 square meters) of the home include not just a maze of hidden passageways, but also a fully functioning observatory, a moat and a swimming pool with artificial rain effects [source: Gunther]. Stay on your best behavior, or you might be relegated to the dungeon, where you'll take up residence with the human skeleton, the human fetus, a few shrunken heads and dead animals [source: Pitts]. But if you're scared of creepy toys, the upstairs room with automated marionettes won't be any better.


Garriott once compared his house to a piece of interactive software, and a trip through the home does seem to involve the same skills as a computer game [source: Lewis]. To access one hidden passageway, the user must pass a magnetized piece of pottery in a certain pattern over the sensors hidden in a shelf to unlock a secret passageway.

Those who think they have what it takes to survive in this lair camp out every other year for the chance to obtain free tickets to Garriott's four-night haunted house. Guests go on a quest throughout the house, encountering witches, bloody pools, flying demons and banshees, to name just a few features from years past [source: Gould]. It takes several hundred volunteers and tens of thousands of dollars to put on the event, but Garriott truly seems to enjoy it. In 1993, he bragged about getting three people to wet themselves from the shock of being showered with six-foot (1.8-meter) sparks from a Tesla coil [source: Lewis].

Richard Garriott is building a new home in Austin, so he may outdo Britannia Manor. But no matter what features he installs, it will be hard to top the storied history of the next home on our list. Turn the page to read about the college dorm with haunted hidden passageways.

6: Sessions House

Are these Smith students voting on how scary Sessions House is?
Peter Stackpole/Stringer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

As a residence hall on the campus of Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., Sessions House has probably seen its share of eccentric student behavior over the years. But even the wildest college parties pale in comparison to the illustrious history of the home.

The house was constructed by Captain Jonathan Hunt in 1710. To provide protection from the local Native Americans, Captain Hunt installed a secret passageway in the home as a family hiding spot. But Captain Hunt's granddaughter Lucy used the passageway for a different purpose. When she fell in love with a Revolutionary War soldier, she arranged for their meetings to take place in the passageway. The family disapproved of the relationship, and though the soldier promised to return to marry the girl, he never did. It's said that the lovelorn ghosts of this couple still wander the halls, looking for each other [source: Smith College].


Each year at Halloween, the new residents of Sessions House try to find the secret passageway. All the lights are turned off, and the students have 20 minutes to search for the meeting spot of the star-crossed lovers. One sinister clue that might lead the way is the sound of two previous students. It's said that you can hear two girls who found the secret passageway one Halloween, only to fall through a hole on a staircase. The students allegedly either broke their necks or were so badly injured they couldn't move, eventually dying of starvation [source: Belanger]. If this story is true, it seems more likely that the girls broke their necks; surely the hidden passageway wasn't so hard to find that the other students wouldn't have come to their classmates' rescue when it was discovered the girls were missing.

While it's possible that the hidden passageway was used to transport slaves on the Underground Railroad, some of the home's other visitors haven't been so lucky. Before the home was given to the college, legend has it that a woman with two young children was staying in the house. The mother thought she heard intruders, so she took an axe and searched the house. She mistook her children for the intruders, however, and killed them. When she realized what she'd done, she killed herself [source: Belanger].

No word on whether Sessions House features a hidden passageway to the Sessions Annex next door. For a few years in the 1970s, the annex housed male students studying at Smith through exchange programs. Certainly a few students at the all-female Smith would have appreciated such a feature.

5: The Octagon House

Homes with hidden passageways have a way of taking on new roles as times change, which was the case for the Octagon House in Fond du Lac, Wis. The home was built by trader Isaac Brown in 1856 at the site of an established settlement and trading post. Wisconsin and other westward migration destinations were increasingly attracting settlers looking for work in the mining, lumber and dairy industries. As an early settler to the region, Brown was fearful he might be attacked by the Native Americans in the area, so he built the 12-room Octagon House as somewhat of a fort, complete with an "Indian Lookout" room, where Brown could keep watch. If Native Americans attacked, the family would need a place to hide, so Brown's design included nine secret passageways and a hidden room adjacent to the Indian Lookout room.

Brown gave the home to his son, Edwin, as a wedding gift upon Edwin's engagement to his fiancé, Ruth Pier. Not long after that, in the years leading up to the Civil War, the house took on a completely different role. At that time, the Underground Railroad began to help slaves reach freedom, and Wisconsin became a significant stop for slaves on that journey. The Octagon House, with its nine secret passageways and secret room, was one home in the area that hosted numerous runaway slaves who passed through.


During a renovation in 1975, the new owner of the Octagon House found another hidden passageway -- a secret underground tunnel that is thought to have been dug specifically for facilitating the slaves. Today, you can visit that same tunnel and even see a message scrawled by a slave on the wall inside the secret room.

4: The Gillette Castle

Gillette Castle was designed to resemble a medieval castle in Germany's Rhineland.
Barry Winiker/Getty Images

The 24-room Gillette Castle was built high on a cliff above the Connecticut River in 1913 by William Gillette, a successful stage actor renowned for his role as Sherlock Holmes. The East Haddam mansion, which has been described as "ugly, excessive and weird" and "designed to resemble a ruined European castle," is made of fieldstone blocks, which were hauled up the mountain by tramway, and was modeled after the medieval castles of Germany's Rhineland [sources: Monagan, Old House Journal].

You might say the actor and playwright designed his eccentric home to operate somewhat like the stage. For example, Gillette installed mirrors above the windows in the living room and in his bedroom so he could monitor his guests as they filed into his house and time his grand entrance down the carpeted staircase perfectly. Likewise, the house also enabled him to make a timely exit. In his private study, he installed a trick door through which he could escape to his workshop if an unwanted guest burst onto the scene.


Gillette liked to spy on his guests, which was done via a hidden staircase and hidden room, as well as through his mirror system. He also liked to wow them with the home's quirky features. These were Prohibition times, so Gillette designed his bar to lock and disappear in an instant, and it could only be reopened by pushing a secret lever in the back. At parties, Gillette enjoyed using his mirror system to watch his guests return to the bar for a refill, only to fumble around aimlessly for the lever.

The eccentricities didn't end there. In his dining room, the table was on a track. Guests sat on a bench along the wall, and the table would roll toward them and lock into place. When Gillette wanted dinner service, he'd push a floorboard with his foot to ring for assistance. Throughout the home, cat-sized openings were built into the walls, so felines could easily navigate the quarters, and outside the castle, a full-scale train cruised the 125-acre estate [source: Vorhees et al].

In Gillette's will, he stipulated that he didn't want the property to be sold to "some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is." He died in 1937 at the age of 83, and in 1943, the state purchased the land for $30,000 to turn it into a state park [source: Monagan]. In 2002, the quirky castle was renovated for about $5.9 million and opened to the public [source: Old House Interiors].

3: Körner's Folly

Known as "The Strangest House in the World," Körner's Folly in Kernersville, N.C., takes eccentric home designs to a new level -- that is, lots of new levels. The home, built as a showcase of the talents of interior designer Jule Körner, has 22 rooms on seven levels and three floors. The 15 fireplaces are each completely different, as are all the doors. Room heights vary from about 6 feet (1.8 meters), befitting a child, to a grand 25 feet (7.62 meters) in some adult gathering spaces [source: Salisbury Post].

It's said that someone, either a cousin or a neighbor, declared the house would surely be "Körner's folly," which so delighted Körner that he had the name set in tile and used it as a name plaque outside the house. Körner began building Körner's Folly when he was a bachelor, and it was never intended to be a permanent home. But that changed after he got married.


In terms of secret rooms and passageways, Körner's Folly has those, too, but their purposes were more practical or whimsical than secretive. The home's many narrow passageways, some as narrow as 2 feet (61 centimeters), simply connect the rooms and floors. The underground passageway was built so that visitors could reach other buildings on the property without getting wet or dirty during inclement weather. The trap doors which so fascinate visitors today were actually part of an elaborate air conditioning system that encouraged air flow throughout the house. Perhaps not quite as practical are the fascinating nooks, crannies and cubbyholes, some of which are covered by curtains. Körner and his wife hosted numerous parties, and Körner built in these hideaway spots so that his guests could sneak away from the crowd and steal private kisses!

2: The Coffin House

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," photographed with a group of anti-slavery workers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You'd think with a name like the Coffin House, this residence would be frightening. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In the pre-Civil War years, Levi and Catharine Coffin weren't happy in North Carolina because the married Quaker couple abhorred slavery. They decided to move to Newport, Ind., (now called Fountain City) to be near others who shared their values. They opened a general store and planned to build a new home, but not just any home -- the new home was designed specifically to be a safe house for slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad.


Indiana was a free state, but it was a federal crime to hide runaway slaves. The house, therefore, had to have secret spaces where the slaves could hide until those seeking them had come and gone. A room in the back of the house had five different doors, so if any slaves had to exit quickly, there were plenty of routes.

The house had several secret areas, too, most notably a tiny and cramped cubbyhole off a bedroom where slaves stayed for as long as two weeks, hiding from harm and resting before embarking on the rest of their journeys. One of the slaves who hid inside the small cubbyhole was named Eliza, and the account of her experience was included in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's cabin."

The Coffins are said to have hidden more than 2,000 escaped slaves during their time in Fountain City, and every one of the slaves the Coffins assisted eventually reached freedom [source: Indiana Insider Blog]. For his accomplishments, Levi Coffin was nicknamed the "President of the Underground Railroad."

1: Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House
Photo courtesy Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA

Few homes are as eccentrically designed as the Winchester mansion in San Jose, Calif. The reasons behind the design are eccentric as well. A 38-year-long project of Sarah Winchester, the Winchester Rifle heiress, the mansion finally contained a whopping 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 40 staircases and three elevators [source: Winchester Mystery House].

On the 160-acre estate, Winchester grew nuts and fruit, which she sold under her own label. She and her staff of eight gardeners tended the Victorian gardens that surround the mansion. In the garden were flora from all around the world and numerous statues, mostly from Europe.

On the outside, Winchester seemed an industrious, sensible woman. Inside the mansion, however, all may not have been so idyllic. You see, Winchester thought she was being haunted by victims of the Winchester repeating rifle. A medium once told her that the only way to get those pesky ghosts off her tail was to build a house that would confuse them. The result was a house that had rooms with several exits, more than 450 doorways, stairs that led to nowhere, secret passageways, and twists and turns unlike any other eccentric home on this list.

After her death, The American Weekly reported this in 1928 [source: Winchester Mystery House]:

"When Mrs. Winchester set out for her Séance Room, it might well have discouraged the ghost of the Indian or even of a bloodhound, to follow her. After traversing an interminable labyrinth of rooms and hallways, suddenly she would push a button, a panel would fly back and she would step quickly from one apartment into another, and unless the pursuing ghost was watchful and quick, he would lose her. Then she opened a window in that apartment and climbed out, not into the open air, but onto the top of a flight of steps that took her down one story only to meet another flight that brought her right back up to the same level again, all inside the house. This was supposed to be very discomforting to evil spirits, who are said to be naturally suspicious of traps."

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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  • Brenoff, Ann. "Hot Property: The Wolf's Lair Castle is listed for $7.5 million." Los Angeles Times. June 10, 2008. (June 30, 2008) http://www.latimes.com/classified/realestate/hotprop/la-rew-hotpropmatenopoulos10- 2008jun10,0,1922364.story
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