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Concealed doorways are the latest trend in home design

The obvious purpose of a hidden door is security: to conceal a safe room or valuables. But another motivation is fun.

With the help of her father, Nicole Buell built a secret door that opens to a bathroom in her condo.
With the help of her father, Nicole Buell built a secret door that opens to a bathroom in her condo.Read moreBill O'Leary / WASHINGTON POST

Washington and secrets go together hand in glove. Or maybe it's more like cloak and dagger. It should be no surprise then that the D.C. area is one of the hot spots energizing the nation's growing demand for secret doors — panels, bookcases, mirrors, or artwork — that swing open to reveal a passage to another room.

The obvious purpose of a hidden door is security — to conceal a safe room or valuables. But as pre-built, ready-to-install doors become more widely available, people are adding them for aesthetics, for fun, or maybe because they watched too much Scooby-Doo.

For D.C. resident Nicole Buell, a bookcase that concealed a doorway solved a design problem. In her 540-square-foot condo, the doors to the only bathroom were in her bedroom and the living area. The living-area door left too little room for pictures or bookcases. "It just wasn't a good use of space," Buell said. Walling over the door was an option, "but," she said, "I didn't want guests to have to go through the bedroom to get to the bathroom."

The solution began with door hinges bought from Secret Doorways, a company in Sunbury, Ohio, owned by a cousin. With the help of her father, she constructed shelves and mounted them on the ball-bearing hinges to create a bookcase that swings open to reveal the loo. "It's fun to surprise my guests when they visit," she said.

Now secret doors are going mainstream. "It has become more of a trend than we expected," said Jeff Watchko, the interior door buyer for Home Depot.

Three years ago, Home Depot began to offer, online, pre-hung bookcase doors from Murphy Door in Ogden, Utah. "The overall draw to the site was more than we expected," Watchko said. "It's very popular on the East Coast and anywhere there is a large metropolitan area."

The Murphy doors can come pre-hung — already mounted in a frame — in standard door sizes, so it's a simple matter to install one in a doorway.

Watchko said the popularity of the secret doors, which range from $850 to $1,750, depending on size and finish, has prompted Home Depot to introduce displays in several cities. "We are looking at rolling out a pilot program in select stores," he said. "It will be the first time people can walk into a store and touch and feel a Murphy door."

Leigha Basini of Lorton, Va., decided to save on a Murphy door by purchasing it in a kit, which arrived ready for her contractor to construct. Kit doors save $200 on assembly and $125 on shipping, said Jeremy Barker, chief executive of Murphy Door.

"We were redoing our master bathroom and closet, and I don't know where I saw hidden doors, but I was a big mystery reader as a child, and when I saw we could have a hidden door, I wanted one," Basini said. "It was probably three-quarters fun, one-quarter storage."

Manufacturers say hidden doors increase market value of a home. But Victor Brown, a real estate agent and a home appraiser with Capital Market Appraisal in the District of Columbia, said that's unlikely. "It isn't a big-enough item," he said. Location, size, condition, and exterior amenities are far more important, he said.

But Brown said that mentioning a hidden door in ads might attract more traffic to an open house. "Indirectly, it might help you get a higher value because you are getting more people interested, which might drive the price up," he said. "The key word there is might."

Some people want something more elaborate than a swinging bookcase. For them, there are companies such as Creative Home Engineering in Gilbert, Ariz. Founded by Steven Humble, who said he began his career as a machine engineer at Boeing, Creative Home often designs doors of unusual size and complexity. The options include a mirror that hides a safe room and an entry large enough to drive a vehicle through.

Because the doors are on the pricier side — a mirror panel starts at $1,500 — a smaller proportion of Humble's customers are buying for aesthetics alone. "I'm going to say 75 to 80 percent have a security purpose in mind," he said.

Michael W. Trott, a security consultant for high-net-worth clients, and a repeat client of Humble's, said there are two parts to panic-room security: the "hardening" of the room — to withstand an assault and to secure food, water, and air long enough for help to arrive — and the camouflage factor.

"If they don't even know you are hidden somewhere," Trott said, "you reduce your chances of getting caught."