Homes with something to hide
Whether to safeguard valuables, conceal occupants from intruders, obscure unsightly spaces or just have plain old fun, hidden rooms and passageways make a home stand out from the pack.
Photo courtesy of Creative Home Engineering
When Tammy and Mike Gorum decided to build a second home in Montana, they asked their children, ages 20 and 17, to weigh in.
"We told them this house was for the family forever and they could have the input that they wanted," Tammy Gorum says.
What the two wanted was a hidden room.
"They came to us with this drawing, and we were like, 'What is this?'" she says. "It was totally their idea. It had never been discussed."
The Gorums asked their architect, Andrew Porth, to keep the possibility in mind but didn't promise the kids anything. When the house, with its hidden room in the basement, was finished, the couple didn't share the secret with their children, but their kids figured it out "within 10 minutes after they were there," Tammy Gorum says.
Architects, builders and homeowners say the ideas for hidden rooms and secret passageways often come from the kids. Julie Bouscaren, a real-estate agent in Redmond, Wash., transformed part of her home's bonus room into her office and created a secret entry upon the suggestion of one of her children. By turning part of the bonus room into more closet space and the rest of it into her office, she ended up with more usable space.
"It's more utilitarian," she says. "We have a big walk-in closet, and the door to the bonus room just has a huge mirror on it that looks like part of your closet."
But once you push on the mirror, you enter into her office.
"I sometimes work late at night, so I can just slip into my office," she says. "And we created more closet space on both sides. I'm female, and we have three daughters. There are lots of prom dresses."
A way to stand out
Some homebuilders will occasionally include one of these "secret" features to help a home stand out among the dozens that a typical homebuyer looks at before making a decision.
John Cochenour, president of Lexington Fine Homes in the Seattle area, puts a hidden room in a house every three or four years.
"This is one of those things that when somebody realizes there is a secret room, rarely does someone not have a reaction to it," he says. "It's not why somebody buys a house, but hopefully it helps someone have a positive response to the home."
John Perkins, co-owner of Forte Homes in Chandler, Ariz., says his company put a hidden entrance in a model home after what he called an "aha moment."
"We thought a buyer would think this is pretty cool, and (the buyer) definitely did," he says.
In that case, the hidden entrance is a sliding cabinet that conceals a door from the den to the master bathroom.
In the Gorums' home, Porth designed a bookcase that slides back to reveal the hidden room. It's on rails attached to the ceiling, but it has a catch on it so it stays shut unless pushed on with significant force.
Cochenour says many of the hidden-room designs that he builds involve a bookcase on a heavy set of hinges.
"It's got to be built well enough to handle the frame, the books, whatever," he says. "It's going to open and close a lot over time, and needs to stand up to that."
Architects and builders often work with cabinetmakers or contractors to build and install these specialized pieces. Or they can order them from companies that specialize in hidden doors, such as Hide A Door or Decora Doors.
Let's get high-tech
Sometimes, though, a sliding bookcase just won't cut it. You want to twist the candlestick or tap out a tune on the piano to open your secret passage.
That desire was what prompted Steven Humble to start his company, Creative Home Engineering, in 2004.
"I had this oversized house, and I thought it would be fun to have a secret room," he says.
Humble did some research, but there wasn't anyone who could produce something like what he had seen in the movies, he says.
"I thought, 'I'm an engineer, and I could do this kind of stuff,'" he says.
After more research, he found that a lot of people wanted high-quality secret rooms and passageways, particularly wealthy people.
"We wanted to be able to provide people with whatever they've seen in the movies and always wanted," he says.
So what do people want? Humble says the most common is the "ubiquitous bookcase secret passageway." But people request a lot of variations of that: a curio cabinet, chest of drawers, dresser, mirror, framed piece of art and map, to name a few. Humble has also done rotating fireplaces, lifting staircases, trap doors in the floor and brick walls that open.
"The work that we do is always a one-off," he says. "We've tried over the years to produce off-the-shelf models of secret passageways, but everybody's got a unique style or security requirement or budget."
The fun part of each project, he says, is the "switching," which is creating the mechanism to open the door. This is the stuff of the movies.
One of the most popular, to go along with the bookcase, is one in which a person pulls a specific book out of the bookcase to reveal the secret room or passageway. Remote controls are popular, too, as are fingerprint scanners and iris scanners. But those aren't as fun as a hidden button on a pattern in the wall or a door that opens when you twist three particular wine bottles in sequence, revealing a room hidden behind the wine rack.
Humble also set up a switch in a chess set, where "various pieces of the chess set have to be positioned over correct spaces." And he's done a passageway that opens if you play three keys on the piano in sequence.
"Almost all our switches are wireless, so you can handle the objects and not have any idea they are switches," he says.