The origins of the American split-level home

Where do all the American split-level homes come from?

Split-levels can be found in many regions, especially in neighborhoods developed after World War II.

The homes borrow a bit of the horizontal profile of a ranch – if the ranch was sliced down the middle, with the bedroom wing bumped skyward half a story to create space underneath for a garage and family room.

It’s not clear when they were invented, though a version of a split-level can be found in Sears, Roebuck & Co. home plan books from the 1930s, according to Minnesota architects Robert Gerloff and Jeremiah Battles, who wrote an online guide to renovating splits called “Split Visions.”

“Splits offered a unique separation of social space, with bedrooms perched a half-story above the formal living space and the informal living space found a half-story below,” the authors say. They shake up “the traditional American pattern of formal rooms on the main level with bedrooms upstairs and a full basement below.”

My interpretation: they are a pragmatic American solution in housing that might just rank up there with the ranch house and the McMansion. Such homes take a basic design and develop multiple living levels as well as spaces that can be connected to various degrees (depending on whether walls are fully intact between spaces or levels). They are relatively cheap to build. They are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing; they tend not to evoke traditional architectural styles (making them easy to plop down anywhere) though are usually not ostentatious.

Side note: I spent most of my years growing up in a split-level. I can attest to their advantages, particularly the multiple social spaces. At the same time, I’m not sure I would buy one myself in the future except for the fact that they seem to be cheaper than homes of a similar size.

The exterior vs. the interior of the Brady Bunch house and architecture in TV and movies

The managing editor of Entertainment Weekly makes an interesting point regarding a famous house in American television: the exterior shots of the Brady Bunch house don’t match the interior shots.

And I grew up obsessing over a particularly brazen TV blunder: The exterior and interior of the Brady Bunch house do not match. At all. Not one bit. In case you never noticed: The interior set depicts a soaring two-story home with the second story over the structure’s right side; the outside is a low-slung split-level with a second story over the left side. (In fact, the second-floor window was fake.) How could they let this happen? Sherwood Schwartz once explained to the Los Angeles Times that the San Fernando Valley house used for the exterior shots was chosen because “we didn’t want it to be too affluent, we didn’t want it to be too blue-collar. We wanted it to look like it would fit a place an architect would live.” In other words, the exterior struck the right emotional note for audiences, and logic be damned. I can live with that. In fact, audiences will forgive almost any lapse in logic if the story does its primary job well – and that is to move us, scare us, tickle us, and give us characters worth knowing. The Brady house made no sense, but I still wanted to live there. And while it may not be necessary to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to get to the San Francisco Airport (unless you’re coming from Sausalito), it makes for a nice aerial shot loaded with symbolism. The best purveyors of pop culture know that poetic truth trumps literal truth every time.

Six thoughts about this:

1. I’m not someone who looks for or particularly cares about inconsistencies in movies and television shows. And yet, this still seems pretty egregious: the sides of the house don’t even line up?

2. Is this house really befitting of an architect? Would any architect worth his salt really want to admit that he lived in a stereotypical split-level? While some might defend the ranch as an exemplar of post-World War II American life, are there people who defend the split-level?

3. The explanation from Sherwood Schwartz is very interesting: the home is supposed to invoke a certain American middle-classness. Another way to think about it is the home is supposed to invoke a particular emotion and then fade into the background.

4. I bet there would be a fascinating study in looking at TV and movie depictions of American homes. As Juliet Schor suggested in The Overspent American, the “middle-class house” on TV has really gotten big and more luxurious over the years.

5. The exterior of the house is interesting but what about the astro-turf lawn?

6. It can be a little bit strange to visit these television homes on the set. Two years ago, we toured the Warner Brothers studio and saw a number of sets. Here are three shots: the emergency room exterior for ER, Lorelai Gilmore’s house on Gilmore Girls, and their oft-used street scene.

After seeing these in person, I imagine there is some room for commentary about the reproducibility of more modern architecture, the impermanence of place, and how it can easily transition from one film to another TV show to a miniseries and so on…