Is There Hidden Treasure in Your Old Home?

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Construction

I think everyone has heard stories about the new owner of an old house doing renovations and discovering a huge stash of Great Depression-era cash hidden in the walls or under the stairs. While many of these stories are no doubt urban legends, some of them are true, but if you’re suddenly feeling tempted to start rapping your knuckles along your plaster walls looking for a hidden hollow, don’t bother. Such discoveries are sometimes made–but by other people.

But even if there’s no cache of cash hidden in your floorboards, there might yet be some hidden treasure in your home. When I was growing up my family struck gold (so to speak) twice. The first time was soon after we moved into a house in St. Louis that had been built in the 1920s and (if memory serves), had been owned by a single family, being passed from the original owners to their unmarried daughter, who continued to live there well into her golden years. The homes on the street were distinct but similar, having been designed by the same architect. All were red brick, all had front doors featuring bevelled glass, and all had second story porches both in front and in back that went utterly unused because their tar-covered floors made them unbearably hot, even on relatively cool days. They also all had matching stained-glass windows on either side of the living room fireplace.  All except for our house, that is. Or so we thought. Several months after we’d moved in my moved in my mother wondered aloud to a visiting neighbor why ours was the only house without stained-glass windows.

“Your house has stained-glass windows,” he answered.

An awkward silence ensued, as we were standing in the living room, and the only thing to either side of our fireplace was solid wall. Or, again, so we thought.

“My kitchen window looks out on your house,” the neighbor said. “I can see them whenever I do dishes. You have beautiful stained glass windows.”

We went outside, around the house and, sure enough, there they were. For whatever reason the previous owner had had them plastered over inside (possibly, we speculated, because they clashed with the searingly bright turquoose paint that had covered all the walls in the house until we repainted prior to moving in). Once uncovered, the windows added considerable character and beauty to the room.

My house in Connecticut

My house in Connecticut

Some years later we moved to Stamford, Connecticut, this time to a house built in the 1830s. Once again we found hidden treasure near the fireplaces. Our contractor had brought his father over to see if he could repair the cracked plaster molding in the living room. Indeed he could, but what interested him wasn’t the molding but the mantle, which was a hideous thing covered with many layers of paint. The old gentleman kept going back to mantle, prodding at it with his pocketknife. Finally he spoke to his son, in Italian, who translated: “Dad thinks this mantle is made of slate. He wants to know if you’ll let him dismantle it and take it home so he can clean it up.”

In fact, the house contained four slate mantles, and all of them were exquisitely etched and remarkably beautiful, the product of craftsmanship that no longer exists. Frankly, the skill with which the contractor’s father restored the mantles is probably also lost, and while I’m sure he was paid for his work, I’m equally certain that he was chiefly motivated in uncovering relics of a bygone artisan era. I also believe that many old houses contain similar workmanship that, for whatever reasons, lies covered, awaiting rediscovery.

Share/Save/Bookmark

Post a Comment

Enter the text shown above

  1. 7 Responses  to “Is There Hidden Treasure in Your Old Home?”

  2. Ashton Lackey
    Aug 29, 2011
    Yesterday, news came out about a couple who were facing forclosure on their old house. When they went down into the basement to clear away items, they found several old comic books. One was a copy of Action Comics #1 in very good condition. They showed it to a dealer and told them it could fetch as much as $250,000 at auction. Needless to say, they won't be facing foreclosure!
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    Well i have you all beat so far, i am a treasure finder, by birth, i guess. Ggrowing up in San Francisco, my freinds and i would wander all over finding abandon houses and garages, our house on Le Conte was haunted,one house my first real find, was empty, in the upstairs bedroom the walls were t&g, vertical, i was pushing on the wall, forgot why, and a secrate door opned, the taperd room held things, many things, a set of red depression dishes, my freinds began throwing them breaking them i saved a sugar bowl, creamer, and saucer sized plates, but noticed a leather case, i opened it had purple felt liner, holdind Carl Zise, Jena telafoto lens, sun lens, weird things i never saw before, my father being a pro, owning roloflexes, brought the find home, they were for a large German camera, i think he sold them. i cant go into detail, would be a novel in it self, every day walking home, we moved to visitation valley, would walk by a boarded up store front, three story building, would look through the cracks and could see shelves, bairly, there was a triple lot next to it, with a long garage, four double doors, thought there could be an auto in there, my freind Henry, and i, it was chained, and the windows frosted, turning around seeing the rear of the store front building, the grass was tall we walked to the stairs, on the cement landing, was the skeleton of a dog chained to the post, we looked at it feeling weird, no one had been there in a long time, now knowing more, it was a pit bull, by the shape of the head, this story is really intense, i will skip through, we pulled off the bord on the back door, went in, the blace was packed with everything you could think of, lots of money, silver coin, swiss watches, there was a presance, i stuffed 200 silver dollars in my pockets, , jewelery went home, the place was so full of antiques, there was paths, we went all the way up stairs to a skinny stair case, opened the door, port hole windows, sun shinning in on an arsnel of guns, old guns, thompson 45 cal automatic machine gun, gattling gun rolling blocks, i took a silver 32 w/perl grips, there was over 300 guns, kids were walking up our street with arm loads of rifels, my father went out, i heard one say my name, he called the police, they came, they went there, the owners were never found, rumor has it, they were buried in the side walk of the school, across the street..there is so much more to tell, i was 11 yrs old..
  4. lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Hey Brett -- good suggestion, I suppose I should try again to find relatives of the author, it's been many years since my husband's attempt. The manuscript is called "The Boodle Hoppers" and the name and address listed for the author: Milton and Mitzie Monroe, 645 Leavenworth st. San Francisco, CA. This was back in 1953...
  5. Aug 29, 2011
    I thought I'd struck it rich once when I discovered what must have been a coal delivery bin once when we were renovating a downstairs bathroom. Turns out that the bin had just been stuffed with newspaper as a way to insulate (Iron doors inside and outside must have brought a lot of cold air in). The newspapers might have been worth something had they been preserved--I think they were dated in the 1920s or 1930s--but they crumbled to the touch. It was cool to have a tangible reminder of how old the house was, though: I remember being struck by the fact that the house was already approaching 100 years old when those ancient newspapers were printed. Lucy, I wonder if there's an animation museum somewhere that might be able to make use of that manuscript, or maybe even trace it via the publisher's name.
  6. revjv
    Aug 29, 2011
    Great post, Brett. When I was a kid, I grew up in a house built in the early 1900s in a mining boom town in Nevada. My brother was convinced there was treasure in the attic and insisted on playing up there even though we weren't supposed to. One day he missed the beam and fell through to the second floor when my parents were out of town. Luckily, the couch broke his fall. But you're spot-on. There was no treasure--just a lot of really disgusting gray insulation that caused new growth in my mom's potted plants and was a real PITA to clean up.
  7. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    My husband found an old suitcase that contained a comic book manuscript from the 20s. He tried to find the author's living descendants but no luck. The suitcase is in our closet right now. It looks like the author was close to getting the thing published (there are several letters between him and publishers) but maybe died before this happened? I found a thread in the forums about finding hidden treasures: http://www.oldhouseweb.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=16755&p=125183&hilit=treasures#p125183
  8. Aug 29, 2011
    Our house, too, had boarded up windows in the kitchen to add more wall cupboards. When we renovated the kitchen, we took the opportunity to restore the beautiful leaded glass windows and gladly gave up some storage space.