The secret reading room in Elsie Larson’s former home is accessed through an antique cabinet. (Elsie Larson/A Beautiful Mess)

Libraries, game rooms, and other cleverly hidden spaces evoke the magic and nostalgia of children’s books

When Elsie Larson was a child, she was obsessed with old houses filled with hidden rooms and stairs. So, when the A Beautiful Mess co-founder designed her latest home, she turned an antique closet into a portal into a secret reading room for her two young daughters.

“For decor enthusiasts, I think it’s worth the effort and money to do at least one thing in your home that’s truly unique and memorable,” says the Missouri DIY-er. “This wardrobe gave a ’90s McMansion soul.”

Brooklyn content creator Rachel Martino hid a closet behind a mirror in the bathroom of her photo studio/event space. For her, the idea was about adding fun and function. “I wanted to take away the wall to create a storage closet, but I also wanted a full-length mirror so guests could see their clothes,” she explains.

The solution worked so well that she ended up replicating the project in her own home, where she installed a mirror mounted on a stair rail to hide the washer and dryer.

Even in my line of work like laundry, the design trend calls to mind beloved children’s books, like the “Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Secret Garden” series. Sarah Park Dahlin, an author and children’s literature researcher at the University of Illinois, says this is perhaps no coincidence: “I think we’re fascinated by these secret spaces (of books) where the heroes are given the autonomy to develop. … We adults have a lot of nostalgia for the books that were It meant a lot to us when we were younger.

Want to bring some of that nostalgia into your home? Here’s how to get started.

Finding space without purpose

Larson says it had always been her dream to build a hidden room accessed through a wardrobe like in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” All it takes is identifying the right unused space: “When we closed off our two-story entryway, we were left with a small room that had no purpose and did not connect to any other rooms.”

What could have been a waste of square footage became the perfect secret library for her children. Plus, displaying it in front of visitors was “our favorite trick at the party,” she says.

Larson adds that homeowners shouldn’t try to force such a design decision, but rather work with the space they have. “We ended up with a spare room that would have been just a closet, and turned it into something more wonderful that works for our family.”

Hunter Primeau took a similar approach when she sectioned off an empty area in her home’s bonus room to create a secret “clubhouse” for her sons. The first step to making this happen in your home is to find a space you don’t mind dividing with a wall at one end, says the Nashville creator. “Some areas to look at are medium-sized closets that can be converted into a cozy little nook, under a flight of stairs if you have a second floor, and unused attic space.”

Even for a whimsical project, Premo advises keeping functionality at the forefront of your planning. In the Secret Kids Club, she and her husband (with the help of interior designer Inga Kasha) prioritized storage by adding built-in shelving and a desk. “What we lost in room size — about 24 inches of depth — we gained in functionality and space that the kids love.”

The toys, games, blankets and pillows “now have a home,” she says. Additionally, they are hidden from view in the clubhouse, which is camouflaged by a door that blends into the wall panels of the rest of the spare room.

Dahlen, a children’s literature professor, is also the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. While creating a secret hideout for her daughter under the basement stairs, she says adding proper lighting was key. Dahlin and her husband covered the space — previously a storage area — to make it cozy, and installed several can lights so their daughter could escape there for hours reading books, not watching an iPad.

Look for a contractor who wants to be creative

If you’re not confident with power tools, Larson advises finding a contractor who’s excited about the opportunity to work on something custom and special. Just be sure to bring your own ideas to the table.

“I was prepared with as many pictures and drawings as possible,” Larson says, noting that getting a dresser that could be modified into a walk-in closet was one of the most difficult parts of her hidden library project. “I remained very involved in the integration process because the wardrobe was already built into the wall — it had to be.”

Martino also says that collaborating with a professional is crucial, as is finding the right piece to dress up your space. For the hidden storage room, “I went with an arched mirror, which is a little more complicated than a traditional rectangle in that you need the mirror to be quite long to cover the entire wall opening,” she explains. “There are few arch mirrors taller than 80 inches, but after a lot of searching we found one.”

Create a space that can evolve

Primo’s two children are under 4, so she says the biggest challenge was creating a space where she could grow with the boys. “The design and construction was very simple, but not overdoing it was the hardest part,” she says.

Premos has added movable, kid-friendly details like bean bag chairs and plenty of toys that can be replaced with more age-appropriate items, like a school desk and reading light, as the boys get older.

Larson and her family have since moved to a new home, leaving behind their secret library. The new homeowners happen to love the space, too—they asked the Larsons to leave the room completely intact and filled with books. But if a future resident feels differently, they can remove the built-in shelving and turn the space into a regular old closet or game room.

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