The Forgotten Door
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
The backpage picture of the "spooky passageway" (Oct. 7 issue) provoked a spate of guesses from readers about the true nature of the narrow entry into a hillside behind Bldg. 15K. An intrepid venture into the dank opening, led by John Henderson of the north maintenance engineering section, revealed its contents, but the speculations were far more romantic than the reality.
"It was a servants' entrance to the basement of the building," declared one caller. "The servants lived in buildings down the hill from 15K. Chauffeurs, and cooks and people like that." According to a former resident of the house, Maria Scheele LaForge, it was a delivery entrance from the rear of the house into the basement.
"It was the entrance to a wine cellar," said Joan Kraft of NINDS, whose father worked at NIH many years ago. "My father remembers the wooden racks with the wine bottles in them. The Wilsons (owners of the home, donated to NIH in 1942 but built in 1926) did a lot of entertaining." Another employee, Chuck Ridgely of ORS, had heard the same thing. "I have been at NIH for only 13 years, but at one time I was told that this was an entrance to a wine cellar."
Dr. Edith Wilson Miles, senior investigator in NIDDK, says, "I used the 'spooky passageway' near Bldg. 15K many times in 1970. At that time the passageway led to a darkroom that belonged to the R&W camera club. Members could get a key to open the door and use the darkroom. There was a very good enlarger, chemicals, trays, and a dry mounting apparatus. There was also a door leading from the darkroom into Bldg. 15K."
Programmer Tuck Arnold of NLM lived on campus for 30 years; his father Dr. Francis "Pokey" Arnold, was an early director of the National Institute of Dental Research. "[The passageway] was a tunnel from the garage area into the house for years," he remembers. "Otherwise you would have to walk all the way up the hill and around to the front of the house. It was mainly for use in bad weather.
"There was a garage built halfway into the hillside," he said. The tunnel serviced that garage, and others adjacent to a cottage to the rear of 15K called "The Flat." "It's been 40 years since I climbed through the tunnels," he reminisced. "There were horses in the field below 15K. I had a horse there as a kid."
Arnold said there are secret passageways throughout Stone House (Bldg. 16), too. "You can get to any room in the house through secret tunnels that the servants used to use," he explained. "If you pressed on a certain bookshelf, it opened into a tunnel entrance." He also remembered that the Wilson residence featured a primitive intercom system -- a wire that family members pulled when they wanted someone's attention in another room.
Perhaps the most imaginative speculation came from Dr. Edward McSweegan at FDA: "Regarding the spooky passageway around Bldg. 15K," he wrote, "I think you've rediscovered the Forgotten Door described over 30 years ago by the children's writer Alexander Key (and everyone thought he was writing fiction): 'It was astonishing at that moment to find himself falling swiftly into the hill...there had been a cave-in over the old Door -- the Door that led to another place, the one that had been closed so long."
It took 17-year NIH veteran John Henderson just a few moments to set the record straight. Wielding a flashlight and ample good nature, he boldly entered the passageway Oct. 9, a warm afternoon, and stopped to open an unsecured wooden door in a darkened antechamber. Illuminating the concrete interior, he showed an old circuit board against one wall, its fuses long since removed, and overhead a momentarily chilling sight: a nest of insects so thick they covered the ceiling like paint.
"Aw don't worry, they're just crickets," he said with a laugh. The door led into a small concrete chamber Henderson called the pumphouse. Inside was what looked like a well-head on the floor, with a series of copper pipes -- now disconnected -- leading into a large orange metal tank protruding from the far wall -- a water tank that Henderson guessed held some 5,000 gallons.
"This was the main water supply for the Wilson estate (15K) and the adjacent cottages," he explained, pausing to scuff the remains of a long-dead rodent from his bootheel. His searchlight found an old electric pump against one wall, and a series of small filtration tanks for cleaning the well water. "Well water served these structures until about 13 years ago, when a 1,000-gallon oil tank on the property ruptured and spoiled the well. We had to run water up the hill from Bldg. 31 to supply the house from that point on. And we switched the building over from oil heat to natural gas."
Aronie Giles, a companion for many years to Ruth Wilson, had heard that someone inadvertently pumped oil into the water tank, but didn't dispute Henderson's version of a rupture. "It could have been that, too," said Giles, who came to NIH in 1964 and lived for many years in the Flat. "I remember Mr. Wilson turning on the tap and saying that it smelled like gasoline. There were fumes coming from all the water pipes in the house."
Giles, who still helps out around the residences on NIH property, is in a state of mild mourning these days. Plans for Clinical Research Center construction call for the bulldozing of her old home and removal of many old trees from the property. "They cut some of the trees in half -- that saddened me more than anything," she said. "It's very painful. That was not the way that we cared for the property."
Henderson pointed his searchlight into the rusting innards of the old water tank, whose back end protrudes through a wall into the basement of 15K, invading a storage room adjacent to what is now a darkroom. The tank, long dry, hosts a thickening bed of rusting metal flakes and some old pipelengths shoved in for storage.
"There was a serious rat infestation in this building some years back," recalled Henderson, a friendly workman of the sort who has a kind word to say about individual people but only exasperating things to say about large, impersonal bureaucracies. "I used to toss a pipefitting onto the floor when I opened the basement door in the morning, to scare the rats away. Employees in the building told me that if they left an apple out on their desk overnight, by morning it would be half-eaten."
Indeed there is a sign on the basement door of 15K today that may be unique among NIH facilities: "Please Keep Door Closed!! Rats, Mice, Crawling & Flying Insects Will Enter Through Doors Left Open."
So the mystery is solved, and, in a way, everyone was right. The room may indeed have served as a wine cellar. Certainly it is cool and dark enough. Servants may once have drawn water at the well, and deliveries may have been received there. It may, upon a time, have included a passage into the nearby darkroom, though now they seem entirely separate. Giles doesn't remember cabernet in the cavern, but does recall a garage back there, built into the hill, so Tuck Arnold's recollections could be accurate as well. And McSweegan's guess was pure poetry, also an aspect of the old Wilson estate. A forgotten door, for sure, but one brimming with currents of memory.
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