Patsy B. Weiler, The Daily News Journal, September 4, 2018
There has been an intriguing mystery recently at the Center for the Arts in downtown Murfreesboro and it wasn’t on stage.
With a nod toward the popular Nancy Drew mystery story, “The Hidden Staircase,” a recently discovered set of iron stairs starting in the bottom level of the center left the staff on the hunt for clues.
This modern tale doesn’t involve a revolver or kidnapping, but instead a wet basement and a tattered copy of “The Farmer’s Wife” magazine from 1931 (a national publication of the last century directed to farm women) — not as adventurous, perhaps, as the original book written under the alias Carolyn Keene, but one still full of intrigue.
“We had been having issues with water backing up in our basement when it rained,” explained arts center Executive Director Patience Long. “During work to fix the problem, the bottom of some drywall near where we keep our props had to be removed and there were the hidden stairs.”
Curiosity got the best of facility manager Callum Ammons, so he squeezed in the opening and climbed the stairwell to the main floor. There it ended in a space between the walls of the right front side of the theater and near Long’s office on the other side.
On the steps, he found the vintage publication with no idea how or why it was laying there.
The building on West College Street was home to Linebaugh Public Library from August 1962 to 1992, so it only made sense to call for more information.
Rita Shacklett, director of the Rutherford County Library System, and a library employee since 1975, and Lisa Ramsay, reference supervisory associate at Linebaugh Public Library System, responded by coming in person to meet with Long and Ammons.
Hunting for clues
Together, the curious quartet of local gumshoes made their way to the basement of the building, which formerly housed the children’s area and where a colorful mural of Sesame Street characters and others still exists.
Once at the opening in the wall, where the bottom of the stairs could be seen, detective Shacklett immediately solved the mystery.
“That is the main staircase from the first floor to the lower level. The library was a large open area then with those big card catalogs. I’m guessing these stairs were enclosed when it was remodeled for The Center for the Arts,” Shacklett said. “At one time, the cabinets that held our periodicals sat near the stairs, so the magazine may have come from there.”
More questions surfaced as the group looked around and listened while Shacklett shared her memories of working in the building, including once when a streaker in a raincoat made a quick appearance.
Ammons pointed out a four-square space surrounded by plastered walls with a high, small opening on one side he had entered and inside found some type of sooty pipe or vent. Then, entering through double doors into a back room on the west side, it was pointed out where a large, square-shaped hole had been cut in the ceiling.
“When I was younger, I explored all over that building and I have never seen any of those areas. I didn’t even know those doors and room were on the lower floor. I think probably bookshelves had been placed in front of them” Shacklett explained.
Back upstairs in the conference room, the group pored over blueprints of the building that Ramsay brought from the Linebaugh archives. Included in the collection were the original 1909 plans drawn on canvas when the structure was constructed in an Italianate Renaissance style. The building first served as a post office and the first federal building in Murfreesboro.
The blueprints didn’t answer questions about their earlier discoveries and raised another curiosity. What happened to the two vaults shown next to the tiny women’s bathroom on the main floor? No one knows.
Another resident who “literally crawled all over that building” as a teenager is county historian Greg Tucker. His father, Burney Tucker, was the architect hired to redesign the building from a post office to a library and a later addition in the early 1970s.
“I don’t remember seeing vaults, and the enclosed area may have been where a coal furnace sat to heat the post office,” Tucker said. “I remember my dad brought a large piece of marble home (specs on the original blueprints indicated 4 feet and 6 inches high pieces of marble wainscoting were used in the bathroom) and attached it to four legs from an iron stove to make a table for my mother. My sister still has it today and it takes her three sons to move it.”
Shacklett is pleased more chapters to the building’s story continue to be written at the Center for the Arts.
“I think the idea there are people there who still care about the history of that building and are trying to preserve its place in our community, is pretty cool,” she said.