13 Houses With Secret Passageways

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It doesn’t matter how old you get; you never outgrow wanting to have a secret passageway or hidden room in your house. Though most of us never get to realize those dreams, these houses are proof that some do - though in the case of H.H. Holmes, some people’s dreams are the nightmares of others.

1. Singer Castle

In 1896, Frederick Bourne, the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, purchased Dark Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in New York. Bourne then constructed a castle chock full of things you usually only find in an episode of Scooby Doo: walls that slide back to reveal stone staircases, paintings that allow a host to eavesdrop on guests, and wine cellars covertly hidden from those who don’t know how to press a panel on the right spot.

2. The Wolf’s Lair

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Now owned by Moby, the Wolf’s Lair Castle in Hollywood was once owned by L. Milton Wolf, one of the early developers of Hollywoodland. Wolf certainly had eclectic taste - as evidenced by the photos of the house from several years ago, when it was for sale - and that includes a penchant for secret passages. Secret passages leading to secret tiki bars, no less. Moby apparently had plans to convert the tiki bar to an invitation-only magic theater similar to the Magic Castle.

3. The Murder Castle

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In 1889, Herman W. Mudgett built a hotel in Chicago in preparation for the influx of tourists the Windy City was sure to experience with the upcoming 1893 World’s Fair. With trap doors, secret stairways and unexpected chutes to the basement, the hotel sounds like a mystery fun house - but as you probably gathered from the name of the place, it definitely wasn’t. Herman W. Mudgett was the real name of H.H. Holmes, the United States’ first “famous” serial killer, who used the upper floors of his hotel to torture and kill hundreds (it’s speculated) of people, mostly women. When one of his murders finally caught up with him, Holmes confessed to the murder of 30 people and was executed. When police raided the Murder Castle, they discovered windowless rooms, false floors, rooms with no escape from the inside, soundproof bedrooms and gas chambers. The Murder Castle burned down not long after Holmes’ capture; a post office was erected on the site in 1938 and still stands there today.

4. House of the Seven Gables

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The Nathaniel Hawthorne book by the same name inspired a secret passage in the original House of the Seven Gables, which inspired the novel. Confused? Backtrack to 1851, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a book which had a setting inspired by the house his cousin grew up in. In 1908, the house was purchased by a philanthropist who restored it and turned it into a museum. She added a couple of elements from Hawthorne’s book that weren’t originally in his cousin’s house, including a cent (candy) shop and a secret staircase in a closet.

5. The Darwin House

In 2007, John Darwin of Hartlepool, England, popped up at a police station, claiming to be suffering from amnesia. His wife had reported him missing some five years earlier; he was eventually declared dead. The widow Darwin then made several insurance and pension claims totalling £250,000, so you probably know the end of this story: it was was later determined that both of the Darwins were guilty of insurance fraud. That part of the tale is not so surprising, but this part is: for the five years that he was supposedly missing, Darwin was actually right at home. The Darwins also owned the house next door, which had been converted to one-room apartments. John built a secret passageway from his wife’s bedroom closet to one of the apartments so he could hide out when needed, but also spend time with his wife regularly. The couple was sentenced to six years in prison but were both released on parole after three years.

6. Dunnerden

With 1,700 feet of secret passageways - that’s nearly six football fields - it’s probably no surprise that the owner of Dunnerden near Aspen, CO, was the man who produced the Myst computer games. Doug Carlston, the co-founder of Brøderbund Software, has file cabinets in his house that conceal doors, dresser drawers that serve as passageways to other rooms, and even a “Room of Doom” that leaves people standing on a ledge behind a waterfall. 

7. Britannia Manor

Doug Carlston isn’t the only video game developer with a penchant for sneakiness. Richard Garriott, developer of the Ultima games (among others) has a hideaway in Austin that has an entire three-story spiral staircase concealed in the center of the house. The staircase opens up into all kinds of hidden rooms, including a wine cellar, a dungeon, and a "science room". And you can take a tour of it:

8. Dan Brown’s house

Wouldn't you know the author who loves to weave ancient secret passages and rooms into all of his best-selling books has a few hidden spots in his own house. He showed Matt Lauer a few of them earlier this year.

9. Sessions House

In 1710, Captain Jonathan Hunt built what was maybe one of the earliest panic rooms in the nation. When he built his Northampton, Mass., house, Hunt included a secret passageway meant to keep his family safe from Native American attacks. These days, it’s a residence hall at Smith College, and popular local legend says that the passageway is haunted by Captain Hunt’s granddaughter, who used it to have secret rendezvous with her Redcoat boyfriend during the Revolutionary War.

10. Dunster House, Harvard

Among many hidden rooms and secret passageways at Harvard are bookcases in the Dunster House library that swing aside to reveal hidden chambers. In fact, Charles Kletzsch, Harvard’s composer-in-residence, lived in one of the secret rooms to save money for many years.

11. Casa Loma

Secret passage - Picture of Casa Loma, Toronto
Image: TripAdvisor

When Canadian financier Sir Henry Pellatt had his house built in Toronto in 1911, he had a few specifications that don’t exactly come standard, even in a 98-room house such as his. Among other things, Pellatt had an underground tunnel built from the house to his stables and a secret passageway leading out of his study. You can still see them today - Casa Loma offers guided tours, venue rentals and even movie shoots. In fact, if you’ve ever admired the interior of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men movie, you’re really admiring Casa Loma.

12. The Winchester Mystery House

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You’ve no doubt heard about the Winchester Mystery House, but a list like this wouldn’t be complete without a mention. The San Jose mansion was built by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune. According to legend, Mrs. Winchester believed that the ghosts of all of the people killed by Winchester guns were haunting her, and a medium told her that she would join them if she ever stopped construction on her house. She had already lost her husband and an infant daughter to this supposed Winchester curse, so Sarah wasn’t about to take the medium’s comment lightly. The result? A architectural mess of a house that includes stairs with a two-inch rise, doors that open into walls, chimneys that stop before hitting the roof, twisting hallways and - yes - at least one secret passageway. The Seance Room contains a secret exit so that Sarah Winchester could slip out of the room and not be followed by ghosts. Past records indicate that there are other secret passageways in the mansion, but as of yet, no one has been able to find them.

13. Mont Saint-Odile

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From 2000 to 2002, nearly 1,100 rare and valuable books disappeared from Mont Saint-Odile, a 17th-century monastery high in the Vosges Mountains in France. When police eventually set up cameras to figure out what was going on, they discovered that the book thief was using a long-forgotten secret passage and chamber to sneak in at night and steal the tomes. Literature lover Stanislas Gosse somehow managed to get his hands on a map that showed the secret chamber was housed in the back of a cupboard in the library and could only be opened by a hidden mechanism. The books were all eventually recovered, some in better condition than when they were removed from the monastery.

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July 30, 2013 - 3:19pm
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