Secret Staircases

Every old house has secrets, but every old house does not have deliberately-constructed secretive places for hiding or hidden means of conveyence: such spaces are special. Novelists love secret staircases, and historians do too: they are evidence of intent. Well, I think everyone is fascinated by secret spaces in general: I have been since I was a child and my mother told me all about priest holes in England and that was that. When I was older and in England I was determined to find as many as I could, armed with the books below. When I was older still, and looking at the house I now live in, its owners (who were also realtors) showed me its two secret spaces: a door hidden in the master bedroom closet that opens up into the in-law apartment next door and a tunnel in the basement that opens up under the street. There’s a big door, with a big lock, leading to some underground space! I always call it a tunnel but I’m not sure how far it goes under Chestnut Street: as soon as the previous owners opened up the door and I saw black I ran upstairs! Twenty years later, I still haven’t been in that space: it’s too scary. I can assure you, however, that my husband and every single contractor who has worked in this house has been in there—they all seem to think it’s some sort of large coal bin but of course the previous owners told me it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I have a theory that it might have been a space to store rum, as the man who built my house was Salem’s biggest distiller and he lived right across the street, but I’ve yet to find proof. So all of this is just an introduction to say: I’m interested in secret spaces! (And I was a Nancy Drew fan too and the Hidden Staircase is my favorite.)

I think that the American equivalent of priest holes are secret staircases and one of the most important secret staircases in America is right here in Salem, at the House of the Seven Gables. For generations of children in our region and beyond, myself included, the first impression or memory of the Gables is undoubtedly of the secret staircase: every child (and many adults) that I have taken to the Gables has been struck by both the idea and the experience of the secret staircase. Its aura is very interesting because it is a twentieth-century installation rather than an original feature of this seventeenth-century house. The House of Gables Settlement Association’s founder, Caroline Osgood Emmerton, and her architect James Everett Chandler, were “inspired” by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel in their restoration of the house: and so it acquired four more gables, a rebuilt central chimney, a second-story overhang, and a cent shop as well as additional room for the companion settlement mission. I love the headline for this Boston Sunday Globe article from January 1910:  all is revealed!

The house also acquired a secret staircase, right alongside the new chimney, even though there is no secret staircase in The House of the Seven Gables. So why? There are several reasons. The house’s previous owner, Henry Upton, maintained that there had been a secret staircase and so Emmerton believed that she was putting something back that had been there before. She also believed, apparently, that the novel needed a secret staircase and so she was giving the house one: “For it seems to be that we feel the absence of the secret staircase in the story just as we feel the absence of a bit of a picture-puzzle that has been lost and has left an unfiled place in the picture.” [The Chronicles of Three Old Houses,1935]. This seems like a bit of a rationalization to me, so I’m wondering if she merely wanted a secret staircase in the house to increase its allure: such discoveries made headlines in those days and they still do.

Boston Evening Transcript 8.5.1911 (not the word “museumized”!); the era of secret staircases: that found in Governor Tilden’s Gramercy Park mansion made national headlines in 1905.

And once the secret staircase was there, it took on a life of its own. I’m working on an article on the Colonial Revival in Salem, and just read a wonderful study on interpretation at the House of the Seven Gables over the last century, based on a succession of scripts [Tami Christopher, “The House of the Seven Gables. A House Museum’s Adaptation to Changing Societal Expectations since 1910,” in Amy K. Levin, ed., Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities (2007); the chapter on the Gables in Colin Dickey’s Ghostland is great too.]. In the beginning, the staircase was explained in terms of smuggling/tax evasion or “a means of escape in witchcraft times.” Then there was a shift to the Underground Railroad, and finally an admission of its 20th century origins. The staircase has reflected historical interests, and historical inquiry over time, but it has also been a means to express simple (childhood) curiosity, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Early twentieth-century postcard and the secret staircase in 1950 (National Geographic) and today (or recently).

13 responses to “Secret Staircases

  • Pamela Baker

    Loved reading your article – such interesting facts! Remeber reading the Nany Drew Hidden Staircase!

  • Kathy Sands-Boehmer

    Thanks for sharing these terrific bits of history!

  • Nancy

    Oh, how I love this, Donna! I too was a Nancy Drew fan back in the day…still am, my first being The Secret in the Old Clock, another secretive hiding place! I love anything about the House of the Seven Gables…and any old, original, winding, steep, creaky, worn (well, you get the idea) staircases in the old, historic houses.

  • Chris Dowgin

    The House of Seven Gables was built soon after the 1660 Navigational Acts that banned English colonies from doing business with other foreign nations and they had to sail their goods to England to pay for their duties before entering ports in America. Governor Andros also was enforcing a tax on livestock.

    So places like the Turner mansion (rumors of a tiny tunnel door like the one in the back of the basement of Old Town Hall through the safe on the first floor to a partition in the basement and a locked hall) and Stephen Daniels house (I’ve seen the Daniels’ tunnels) which were contemporary could of been used to smuggle molasses from the French colonies to make rum.
    In Beverly (The Trask House) and Danvers (The Porter House behind Connors Farm) were attached to tunnels in that period to hide livestock. The Trask House was behind the King’s Grant Inn on 128. The property has now a more modern cow tunnel which runs under the highway leading to Cherry Hill Ice Cream.

    Like the tunnel under the highway, old tunnels sometimes could of led to the creation of new tunnels. Judge John Hathorne owned the hill Danvers State is on. The Kirkbride Plan, used throughout the country, called for the hospital wings to be connected to a series of tunnels. Under the store fronts of the Essex Condominiums were a series of tunnels entrances, as can be seen in a photo of the once Almy’s lot. This was the Ship Tavern that the Putnam’s had Sarah Osborne arrested to obtain. It was the site of town politics because there was drink, food, and the fire was always going and Town Hall was often too cold.Could that site have had a tunnel from the 1660’s. Was there old tunnels under Salem State University that led to the later tunnels leading to the theater and Horrace Mann School to built later?

    Dr. Loring’s mansion has a tunnel leading out of the side of the hill on the South Campus.

    My friend had done phone repairs in the basement of the Turner mansion and seen the tiny tunnel door that looks like the one in Old Town Hall. Another friend said he stayed overnight in the tunnel when Kim Driscoll was a camp counselor. A new employee said she knew of the tunnel and was going to snap a photo in exchange for a recent favor. When I called later, she said she was mistaken about the tunnel. The story of the secret staircase changed soon after my book was released.

    The bricks of the staircase and the fireplace look the same. One story is the fireplace is old and the staircase is new. Though the bricks look like they were fired before 1860. If the staircase was new and the fireplace was old, they did a great job in seamlessly integrating the vintage bricks into the fireplace, and rearranging at least four rooms on two floors to accommodate for it.

    If so Osgood should be praised for hiring contractors who found the bricks and did such an amazing job.

  • Chris Dowgin

    Oh I forgot, behind the Porter House is the old Nike Missile site. Kid’s from the Clarke School would play in those tunnels and the ones under the porch of the Porter House. The Nike site tunnel leads to the firing site for the missiles on North Street in Danvers. I have even heard rumors of the tunnel leading to the National Guard base in Wakefield/Reading, but that is a long way…

  • Chris Dowgin

    One more. Secret Stairs. The house after the AOH on Boston Street. It has a staircase from the second floor in what once was a secret room. The stairs lead directly from second floor to the basement to a tunnel that winds its way toward the North River. It was a Dumas family compound with many aunts living in the two houses. Two cousins used to play in the tunnels.

  • Brian Bixby

    I grew up in a house with two “secret rooms” though their stories were very mundane. One was just a section of the dirt basement my father had bricked off; no bodies buried there so far as I know. The other was a tad more interesting. Someone had attached a two-seater outhouse to the back of the house in such a way that its “floor” was still a few feet above the ground. It was with great excitement that we kids figured out how to push up the panels that covered the old seats from above and made our way into that room.
    Alas, after my parent sold the house, that section was remodeled and the outhouse is there no more!

  • daseger

    Salem has a lot of tunnel lore; I try to restrict my commentary to those I have actually seen.

  • Susan Feight

    Loved this post. Have always been a fan of secret staircases, chambers and tunnels. House of 7 Gables is my favorite. I think you are very lucky to have your own secret tunnel!

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