The hidden rooms and secret tunnels dotting St. John's
From Cold War bunkers to legendary 17th-century tunnels, St. John's is a city of mystery
After purchasing her home this past October, Andrea Munro discovered a secret room in her basement.
Built in 1957, the house's architecture—all straight lines and long rectangles—is unique to the area.
"The space isn't in the blueprints at all. We found it when we were trying to figure out where some pipes led," Munro told me.
"It's tucked in the back corner of the basement, off of the small room where the sump pump is. The doorway was hidden from view."
Munro can't possibly know what the room was meant for, but cement blocks make up the walls with wooden shelves built into them.
"We think it's an unfinished Cold War bunker. It's cool and a little creepy. At some point, someone made a big hole in the concrete, probably trying to put a door through to the other side."
Shane O'Dea, a former university professor and expert in heritage homes, says Cold War bunkers in St. John's aren't unheard of.
O'Dea told me Munro's house is "in the right time period," and that he knows of other wartime shelters in town.
"But cold war bunkers aren't the only type of secret space in Newfoundland. There are unused coal chutes and spaces that were eventually boarded up — only to be rediscovered by later occupants," he said.
Where time stands still
Pablo Navarro is a St. John's resident who found one of those secret rooms in his apartment.
"I lived in my home as a tenant for a year, and the secret space was somehow invisible to me," Navarro said. Later on, he noticed a second-floor window at the back of the house.
It "didn't match up to any rooms in the upstairs apartment — at least that my partner and I knew of," he said.
Eventually, curiosity got the best of Navarro and he climbed up to peer through the window, only to realize it seemed to look in to a small room, about three metres deep, that had been cut off from the rest of the house.
There was no way into the space except through this window, an old double-sash with glass and a wooden frame that had been screwed shut, he said.
Eventually, Navarro purchased the home.
"That's when we properly discovered the secret room. There was access through that double-sash window and through a hole in the floor that led to the breezeway," he said. "We discovered two rooms with a large hole in the dividing wall. There were pressed-wood pulp panels covering the original clapboard, the colour of kidney meat."
Naturally, the old panelling had to go.
Navarro discovered other long-forgotten treasures during the renovation: an old pre-war saw, a soda bottle, and a few toys he suspects are at least 50 years old.
"It seemed as though the rooms may have been nurseries, closets or storage rooms," he said.
Reclaiming lost spaces
Navarro did some digging and found archival documents indicating the O'Keefe family had been owners of both properties sometime in the 1920s or '30s. "We figure they decided to build an attachment between the houses at the second-floor level," he said.
This space was within the survey parameters for the property, so Navarro was able to remove the wall and connect the secret room to the rest of his apartment.
"It now serves as a secret playroom for our daughter," he said. "It was a fun adventure to discover a space hiding in plain sight, and deeply satisfying to reclaim it and to develop it into a functional space."
Like Navarro, O'Dea uncovered some spaces in his home — a cupboard off his kitchen nook, and a pump room that had been sealed in the 1960s — but his most interesting discovery was actually concealed within the walls.
"We had a carpenter in to install an internal storm window over one of our French doors. As he began to remove moldings he announced, 'you're not going to need this window, you have a shutter in the wall,'" he said. "It was tremendously exciting."
It was a Victorian sliding shutter — an incredibly rare find. O'Dea believes these shutters were installed around 1847.
O'Dea was so thrilled by the discovery that he wanted to start digging into the drywall at once to get a better look at the shutter, but his wife put her foot down.
"We were having people over that evening, so digging into the walls was an emphatic 'No,' with expletives," he laughed.
Tunnels and treasures
The city has more secret spaces to offer than the ones in residences alone, and I set out to find them.
Tales of hidden tunnels, pirate treasure, and subterranean crypts have long been a part of St. John's lore. This is how I found myself standing in a cold cellar below Government House.
The upstairs glitters with giant paintings of queens, lush red carpets, and a Louis XV mantel clock probably worth more than all my worldly possessions.
Downstairs is a different story. The lower space had been used for servants' quarters and is now home to a professional kitchen, overflowing offices, and storage spaces aplenty. We're in a dark, unfinished part of the basement. The walls are unpleasantly moist — almost sweating — and the stone ceilings are vaulted.
David Brown, private secretary to the lieutenant-governor, is showing me where the tunnel to the Colonial Building — just across the estate — was filled in. I can almost imagine the passage stretched out before me. It's an eerie space.
Jerry Dick, executive director of Heritage NL, however, disagrees on this particular point. "There are accounts of a tunnel connecting Government House with the Colonial Building, but no evidence of this was found during restoration," he says.
Instead, he suspects that the rumours of this tunnel are connected to the French drains discovered during work on the Colonial Building.
"These drains have stone walls and are large enough for a child to crawl through. They extend quite far and were used to drain the boggy ground around Bannerman [Park]," he said. "They likely date to the Colonial Building construction of 1848 to 1850."
There are other persistent and intriguing tunnel stories, too. Some of the most popular are those that surround the Southside Hills.
"My understanding is these were used to store munitions during World War II," Dick explained. "The Southside Hills were seen to afford considerable protection. The tunnel entrances faced north, so they would not have been accessible to German U-Boat torpedoes that might have been shot from the harbour entrance."
Rumours of a tunnel connecting the Four Sisters, a series of identical, three-storey stone buildings on Temperance St., have also circulated for years.
While Dick can neither confirm nor debunk these tales, he knows of a contractor who believes there's clear evidence of an underground tunnel extending from the Four Sisters up the hill.
"This individual described an opening of approximately four by six feet cut into the bedrock, opening into a larger tunnel around ten feet high," he said. "This extends for 20 feet or so before it ends at a cement wall. The wall was reportedly erected to combat a leaking sewer more than twenty years ago."
The purpose for this tunnel isn't known, but Jerry has heard theories.
"There is some speculation that it connected Fort William, site of the present-day Sheraton Hotel, with the harbourfront," he said.
O'Dea believes the intrigue over the city's mystery rooms, hidden artifacts, and legendary passageways have persisted for a specific reason.
"There's a hidden part of us that believes we're going to find treasure," he said.
"Secrets excite the imagination, but they also offer us a tangible way to learn about the history of our homes."