Where the Secrets Were Kept

In some New York City homes, tap the walls or peer into the back of a closet, and who knows what you might find. A hidden staircase, a secret passageway, or walls that pivot could lead to unknown territory.

Comments: 12

  1. Can't think of how many times my waking dream was of finding a previously unnoticed room in my tiny Mott Street apartment years ago!

    Not all such discoveries are pleasant however. In 1978 my first NYC job was for a contractor and I recall two of the painters telling me of a mummified corpse discovered n a walled-off alcove on the upper east side. They joked about the job turning into a crime scene but I could tell at least one of them was still quite shaken.

  2. Maybe there is still hope I'll find a hidden extra bedroom in my one bedroom apartment!

  3. I found an entire full bathroom, with original 1930s tiling, bathtub, sink, toilet, etc. hidden behind a concrete block wall in an office building in Mineola, Long Island - of all places. The office behind it had a half bath, the two offices in front had 1/2 baths. We were shocked to find it as it had never been residental, and is on the main business thoroughfare in the area.

    I've also appraised churches in the City of New York that had hidden rooms, even off the sides of alters, but the creepiest was the hidden crypt found in the basemnt of a convent. It was about 20 feet down in a sub-basement and consisted of a wall of marble with 18" squares in the wall. "This is where we keep the dead nuns" I was told. "But there are none here today." I was thoroughly creeped out by this point and glad to hear a simple answer, which was that they had all been buried in a local cemetery.

  4. I can't match finding a whole room, but, I did find 100 yr old newspapers (probably used as insulation) when rehabbing a Penna farmhouse in the 1970s.

    For another rehab, I knew the previous owners had fixed up the home for their new baby, which, alas, was stillborn. Distraught, they moved out. While ripping out kitchen walls, I found a large valentine, painted on the reverse side of an interior wall. I put the valentine aside, outdoors. Weeks later, a prospective "buyer" came by to inspect. Turns out, she was the dead child's mother, come to look over her old place. I said, "Hey, I have a valentine for you!" We rushed out to the back door; alas, the weather had scrubbed clean the valentine from the saved wallboard. Ah, well, the thought was nice....

  5. This isn't as dramatic as some, but it surprised us. When we took possession of our Victorian-era central Michigan farmhouse (built 1879), we found a back panel in the master bedroom closet. This opened to reveal a secret room built in the attic space. The room was insulated, drywalled, and carpeted, with built in lights and power outlets. While not tall enough to stand in, you could seat perhaps a half dozen people in it comfortably. We call it the "Militia Room" under the theory that the Michigan Militia may have used it as a hide-out. Not an outlandish theory considering the quirks of the folks we bought the place from. Our use for the space is more prosaic: Storage for off-season clothes.

  6. In the sub-basement of the Reich mansion on 89th and Riverside Drive there is a magnificent wood paneled chess room that supposedly had a tunnel linking the house to another property the family owned half a mile north.

  7. In the eighties we had friends who rented a flat in an 18th century building. They had the upstairs, which had a huge fireplace in the kitchen and wide flooring which was simply logs cut in half, not planks at all. It was very cool, but off the kitchen was a staircase to the attic, where there was a semi-hidden room, a simple 10x10 space with no windows. It was believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad. It was creepy that there was a hasp on the outside of the door - to keep things in, not out.

  8. Sorry, meant to say this was in Chester, NJ.

  9. I'm in the process of buying an 1890s East Boston house with a mysterious sealed-up door to nowhere. Two listing agents, my broker, and myself couldn't work out where it might lead, and it seems like there's some interior space unaccounted for behind it. You bet that on moving day, I'll be running upstairs and prying that thing open before I even get my coat off.

    The semi-finished basement is full of nooks that could easily turn into secret rooms, too, and 2 old steppie staircases, and oddly long old hallways that I believe once functioned as a coatroom for boarders. All the once-identical units now have different layouts due to some creative wall-rearranging over the years.

    Broker: "I added a clause to have them leave any fixtures intact. So the stoves, original light fixtures, washing machines..."
    Me: "There's a washing machine?"
    Broker: "Who knows?"

    Exactly what you want to hear when you're buying a house, right? But it turns out, there IS a washing machine that was hidden away during the walkthrough. Any secrets after that are just a bonus.

    (Yes, the house is scheduled for a thorough and professional inspection. Until the last tenant moves out, though, some things will remain a mystery.)

  10. People plastered off rooms when someone died in there especially if from one of the three dozen contagious diseases that regularly carried off half the household. It was also common to have an interior room or cellar room that was cool in the summer and used for canned goods. Prohibition and bank robbing gangs spawned quite a few hidden room booms in the 20s and 30s in the Midwest.

  11. The guys who created th bathroom in our house in a redesign back in the 60's, apparently were hefty drinkers. They gingerly placed six old label Whiskey bottles behind the drywall we just true down to reveal the lovely red brick wall. All of life is a discovering of secret places, whether in our hearts or in our homes.

  12. For #5, the tunnel mystery. Wouldn't it be easier just to follow the tunnel and find the exit instead of guess which "subterranean openings" let to the tunnel?

    On a more serious note, those old builds should be replaced with new apartments to enhance living condition, energy efficiency and lower housing cost on the city. I am always amazed a 400 ft^2 co-op can ask for 400k and has peeling paint and cracked toilet.