Hidden home passageways becoming a trend

Hidden home passageways becoming a trend
by Robin L. Flanigan

Several years ago, Steven Humble of Arizona was an engineer designing robotic equipment. He had a fairly large house and figured it'd be fun to have a company specializing in hidden passageways help him construct a way to make his fireplace rotate with the twist of a candlestick. But he couldn't find a single one.

"I wanted it to be just like 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,'" he recalls. "I thought, 'I'm not so eccentric that I'm the only person in the world who would want this.'"

Humble was right. In 2004, he started Creative Home Engineering in Tempe, Ariz., and now does business around the globe — with one recent project shipped all the way to Syria — creating secret spaces for security, aesthetic or purely whimsical reasons. Featured on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and HGTV, his work generally is much more complicated than the common door-disguised-as-a-bookcase request — what Humble terms "the stereotypical Scooby Doo secret passageway." His prices range from $6,000 for a non-motorized bookcase to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a custom project with an electronic entry system such as a fingerprint scanner, optical-imaging device or voice-recognition system.

From panic rooms to playrooms, from a place to hide valuables to a way to hide an unsightly bathroom off the foyer, hidden passageways are a growing niche business for a small number of companies nationwide, though no formal industry figures exist. Both mysterious and practical, they can be accessed by knocking on a door, pulling a book off a shelf or some other mechanism that would give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money. In some of the more elaborate setups, the seat cushion of a recliner lifts up to reveal a tube slide leading to another floor, or a floor opens so a billiards table can pop up.

"Hidden wine cellars are a big one right now," says Callie Cambridge, owner of The Hidden Door Company in Camino, Calif., whose doors, all of which are custom-made, have reached widths of up to 84 inches. Prices start at about $2,000 for a simple bookcase door and top tens of thousands of dollars for projects that turn homeowners' intricate visions into reality. "They have unique ideas that they want to implement, and they want us to be the solution to their design problems," Cambridge says.

According to a recent Angie's List member poll, nearly 41 percent of homeowners who have a hidden area in their home use it for concealing secret or valuable items.

Chris Soyke, a sales manager who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of River Hills, installed a door in the back of a closet that leads to a crawl space when he put an addition on his house. His three daughters play in there once in a while —they particularly love having to use a ladder to reach the door — but for the most part the space serves as storage for old memories Soyke wants to preserve.

"High school mementos and yearbooks and old paintings," he says. "All the things that you should throw away but can't."

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