Hidden passageways seem to belong mostly in books and movies. They're used by children to access magical worlds and by criminals to commit deeds that stump even the smartest detectives. While real-life hidden passageways are used by everyone from popes to gangsters, they might not seem to have much practical use in the home. After all, popes have used the hidden passageway between the Vatican and the Castel Sant'Angelo to escape when Rome was under siege, and Al Capone had tunnels all over the country so that he could escape from police officers on his tail. Examples like these undoubtedly make hidden passageways seem cool, if a little extreme. Is it really possible for average people to have one in their home?
Not only is it possible, but the installation of home hidden passageways is on the rise. Although we don't have exact numbers -- after all, not everyone wants to spread the word about a secret passageway that may lead to their most precious valuables -- in 2006, architects reported an increase in hidden room installations over the last five years [source: Summers-Sparks].
Are you already searching your mind for reasons why you might need a cool hidden passageway, such as a dastardly-looking next door neighbor who might launch a midnight attack or an oddball collection that might need protection? Well, you don't have to think too hard. While about half of hidden passageway projects serve some sort of security or safety purpose, the other half of homeowners with hidden passageways said they wanted the feature simply because it was cool [source: Summers-Sparks]. Have children? One design firm said it does a fair number of children's rooms and playrooms, since children delight in a hidden passage even if it doesn't take them to Narnia or through Hogwarts [source: Casey].
If your inner Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy has ever wanted a hidden passageway adventure, then read on. We'll take a look at what today's hidden passageways look like, what they're used for and just how you get one. Click "next page" for a not-so-hidden way to get to this information.
Building Your Own Batcave: Installing Hidden Passageways
Hidden passageways can be anywhere in the home. What may look like an ordinary grandfather clock could slide to the side to expose a hidden passageway. A perfectly normal staircase could swing up from the bottom, like a garage door opening, to reveal a hidden hallway. And your favorite armchair may be a comfortable place to watch sitcoms, but lift up that cushion and instead of finding crumbs and loose change, you could encounter a slide to a secret room below.
Hidden passageways don't work that differently from what we've seen in the movies. Their entry is camouflaged with an everyday object. You may press on a book or twist a candlestick and voila! A bookcase turns or a fireplace rotates to reveal space you didn't know existed. Because thieves may not be looking twice at those commonplace objects, the feature can be great for safety. Say you have two wall niches with a painting in the middle. If you move a vase in one of the niches, the painting will slide upward. Below the painting is a fingerprint scanner, and if the prints match, the other niche will slide open to reveal a safe. Or perhaps you have a certain knock code, an optical sensor or a voice recognition system that activates the door to your hidden passageway -- all of these security features are available.
If you're ready to install a secret passageway, then any architect could design and install it, though you might have to endure some sober fuddy-duddies rolling their eyes. If you're seeking a creative door, then a company such as Hide A Door or the Hidden Door Company can provide custom entrances. There's even at least one company -- Creative Home Engineering in Tempe, Ariz. -- that specializes in designing and installing hidden passageways for the home.
If you were to enlist the services of Creative Home Engineering, then you're only limited by the size of your imagination and your wallet. Want a hidden passageway that would do Batman, James Bond or even Scooby-Doo proud? Then feel free to suggest it. The owner of the firm, Steve Humble, was inspired by the hidden staircases and revolving fireplaces of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" [source: Casey].
Installing a hidden passageway could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 [source: Summers-Sparks]. A cool activation mechanism, like a clock that will open doors when the hands are moved to midnight, will cost an extra $200 [source: Casey]. Creative Home Engineering does sell a do-it-yourself kit for those who want absolutely no one to know about their secret rooms, but the firm will also send staff all over the world for installation.
For an elaborate series of hidden tunnels, it's better to do the work as part of new construction because an existing home may not be able to meet the structural demands [source: CNBC]. A retrofit may be possible, but there are plenty of small additions, such as a revolving bookcase or a unique doorway, that can be made to homes.
And what does this hard work get you, besides hours of adventure? As we mentioned, hidden passageways can be used for safety and security or something as simple as storage. You're also adding a whimsical touch to the home that may pay off when you're ready to sell. Some real estate agents say that hidden passageways can increase the value of your home, and at the very least, you'll attract more house hunters interested in viewing the property [source: Quinn].
But is there a downside to this kind of secrecy? Turn the page to read about how hidden passageways have been used throughout history.
Hidden Passageway Stories: Hiding Priests and Book Thieves
Throughout history, hidden passageways have been used to help people hide and escape. One of the oldest usages of a hidden passageway involved Catholic clergymen in the time of Elizabeth I. During her reign, practicing Catholicism was a crime, so wealthy families built priest holes to hide their priests. Secret rooms and passageways were also used to hide fugitive slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. In more recent history, Anne Frank became a symbol of all Jews forced to hide during the Holocaust with the publication of her diary, which detailed life in a secret room.
Sometimes your desire to hide and escape is a bit simpler, though. Balfour Castle, a home in Scotland constructed in 1848, has a hidden passageway that the family used when unwanted visitors arrived. If family members didn't want to speak to the person at the door, the butler could honestly say that the family was not at home [source: Undiscovered Scotland].
But while these simple and sometimes heroic hidden passageway stories show us the benefits of secret passageways, it's worth mentioning that hidden passageways have also been a popular place for conducting and covering up crime. One horrifying example was brought to light in 2008, when it was revealed that an Austrian man had built an underground dungeon, accessible by a coded hidden passage, in which he imprisoned his daughter. The dungeon allowed no sunlight to reach the woman or the children that the man fathered with her [source: Pancevski].
Another hidden passageway criminal was John Darwin of Hartlepool, England. Darwin was tens of thousands of pounds in debt and figured the only way out was to fake his death in a canoeing accident so that his wife could collect the life insurance. For five years, he lived in a secret room in the family home, crawling nightly through an 18-inch wide secret passageway hidden by a wardrobe to be with his wife [source: Norfolk]. Although Darwin stayed hidden from friends and family for years and was planning to escape to Panama, in 2007 he turned himself in because he missed his sons.
Last, let's take the case of the missing books. In a monastery in Alsace, more than 1,000 antique books mysteriously disappeared out of a locked library. The nuns and the monks changed the locks but the books, many of them extremely rare, kept disappearing. Eventually the police found that there was a hidden passageway into the library, and they set up closed-circuit cameras to nab the book thief. That's how they caught Stanislas Gosse, who had found a map of the hidden way into the library. To enter, Gosse scaled the walls of the monastery and a steep staircase to reach a secret room adjacent to the library. Gosse claimed that his was a crime of passion; he just loved the books so much and felt no one was appreciating them in their current location [source: Webster].
So it's your call. Would a home hidden passageway be a way to keep your valuables safe and your children entertained, or would it be a haven for drug smuggling and crime? While you think it over, take a look at the stories and links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Balfour Castle." Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide. (June 30, 2008)http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/shapinsay/balfourcastle/index.html
- Bracey-Gibbon, Jonathan. "Now you see it." The Sunday Times. May 14, 2006.
- Bremner, Charles. "Bookworm used secret passage to steal tomes." The Times. May 24, 2002.
- Casey, Laura. "Our den? It's right behind the fireplace." Oakland Tribune. Jan. 20, 2007. (July 3, 2008)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4176/is_20070120/ai_n17146656
- "Celebrities & Ghosts." The Seelbach Hilton Louisville. (June 30, 2008)http://www.seelbachhilton.com/history_celebrities.html
- Creative Home Engineering. (June 30, 2008)http://www.hiddenpassageway.com/
- Henley, Jon. "The mystery of the hilltop monastery, the locked room and the missing manuscripts." The Guardian. May 24, 2002. (June 30, 2008)http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4420440-103681,00.html
- Norfolk, Andrew. "Secret passage in next door hideaway used to see wife." The Times. Dec. 8, 2007.
- Owen, Richard. "Hidden papal path becomes tourist trap." The Times. Aug. 14, 2003.
- Pancevski, Bojan. "Austria: incest father has sex assault conviction." The Times. April 29, 2008. (June 30, 2008)http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article3835640.ece
- Quinn, Catherine. "Hidden extras: The age-old appeal of houses with secret passageways." The Independent. Jan. 10, 2007. (June 30, 2008)http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/house-and-home/property/hidden-extras-the- ageold-appeal-of-houses-with-secret-passageways-431429.html
- Summers-Sparks, Matthew. "Eight Rooms, Well, Nine, but That's Their Secret." New York Times. Oct. 5, 2006. (June 30, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/05/garden/05hidden.html?_r=1&n=Top/Reference/Time s%20Topics/Subjects/H/Homeowner%20Resources/Home%20Safety&oref=slogin
- Sylvester, Melvin. "The African-American: A Journey from Slavery to Freedom." Long Island University. (June 30, 2008)http://www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/aaslavry.htm
- "The Big Secret." CNBC On the Money. (June 30, 2008)http://www.hiddenpassageway.com/cnbchigh.wmv
- "The History of The Priest Hole." The Priest Hole Eating House. (June 30, 2008)http://www.thepriesthole.co.uk/history.htm
- Webster, Paul. "Mystery at the monastery ends as CCTV reveals chamber of secrets' daring thief." The Guardian. June 19, 2003. (June 30, 2008)http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/jun/19/france.paulwebster