1920s Architecture, Speakeasies, and Secret Compartments

Homeowners who purchase older homes often find tiny doors and little compartments in unusual places – and are left wondering what they were for. Some of them were simple coal chutes, through which the coal delivery man would put coal for heating. Others were tiny doors where the milkman would leave dairy products. But there are still some compartments for which purposes aren’t quite so obvious, and there is usually only one answer – Prohibition. They were used to hide booze.

Stories about my grandfather, which have become family legend, revolve around the old man’s personal Prohibition adventures creating bootleg wine, whiskey, and gin. He had a still in the attic of his old home with a complicated set of tubes that led down into the parlor, where someone in the know could open up a secret compartment, open a tap, and pour themselves a glass of his home-made gin straight from the hidden distillery.

Stories are still re-told around the holidays about when local police would frequent his home, sit around the parlor and drink free booze – and tip him off when the Feds were planning a raid.

Caitlin and Danielle, who run a Chicago lifestyle blog called “Once Upon a Dollhouse,” recently renovated a summer cottage in Bay View, Michigan, a national historic landmark. To their delight, they found the 100-year-old house to be filled with secret hiding places, liquor glasses, and actual booze hidden in the walls! But their best hidden find in this Prohibition-era home is a secret cupboard, which had long since been walled up. Their builder uncovered it, and inside was a 1920s phonograph in perfect condition. “We asked where the gold bricks are but haven’t found them yet,” joked Caitlin.

During the time of speakeasies, secret passwords, and jazz, hotels too commonly held secret compartments – and sometimes entire secret rooms, which could be entered only by those in the know. At the Life Hotel in New York City, named for housing the original LIFE Magazine in the early 1900s, has just such a history. The founders, David Mitchell and Stephen Hanson, stripped away layers of redesign from over the years to bring this delightful destination back to its former glory, and they discovered a few boozy surprises along the way. One was an entire subterranean speakeasy – a hidden room in the basement, which had been closed off and forgotten for decades. In it, they found empty bottles and an old deed to the space, which called the room a “lounge” – which during the time, was code word for “speakeasy.”

“The 1920s was a wonderful time for architecture,” said Tim Bakke, Director of Publishing at ThePlanCollection.com. “We’re seeing a great deal of interest in newer homes built with design elements of this period. And while the newer homes don’t need secret compartments any more, the grand designs of the roaring twenties are timeless, and these are some of the most beautiful homes in our collection.”

A midwestern hangout with a notorious past

South Bend, Indiana – a Rust Belt town about 90 miles from Chicago – was one of the most notorious areas for booze, speakeasies, and a frequent stopover for Chicago mobsters. During that era, John Dillinger, who often hid out in Chicago but strategically never robbed banks there, did a quick stopover in South Bend in 1934 – to rob the city’s Merchants National Bank.

The town, known for being the home of the former Studebaker automobile company and the University of Notre Dame, was also home to more than its share of speakeasies. Nearly every neighborhood in the city still has some homes with one or more of those strange secret compartments, and more than a few local pubs have a history that dates back to the 1920s. Martha’s Midway Tavern in neighboring Mishawaka was known, during the 1920s, as “Midway Lunch,” although owner Martha was known to sell bootleg whiskey she made herself. The historic watering hole was also a favorite of Al Capone, who passed through South Bend often and would bring a dozen roses for Miss Martha.

Other stories from South Bend residents of my own 1920s-era neighborhood tell of hiding places inside the bedroom closet, hidden crawlspaces that held bootleg hooch, and a secret box behind built-in drawers in the main hallway. The priests at Notre Dame were also known to patronize bootleggers, and one resident told of how her parents, who made bootleg whiskey, hid liquor in the folds of their curtains, and sold it to more than a few local tippling priests.

In my own 1920s-era home, what used to be a milkman door was walled off from the outside and transformed into a secret hiding place where I found empty cans of “Canadian Ace,” a notorious brand of beer made during prohibition by Al Capone’s group under the label “Manhattan Brewing Company.” Of course, Canadian Ace was not made in Canada, nor was it made in Manhattan. It was made in a shabby, nondescript South Side warehouse in Chicago during Prohibition, and the naming was meant to throw off the feds.

Home renovation projects are still to this day uncovering these unusual hiding spots, sometimes even with intact though probably undrinkable liquor. Homes with secret rooms, hiding places, and undiscovered crawlspaces continue to be the stuff of legend – and although Stephen King may make a horror story out of it, more often than not their function was, while still illegal at the time, more functional than ghostly.

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