Background of the Vernacular: The What, How & Why of Bi-Level, Split-Level and Raised Ranch Homes

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Virtually every type of home in the USA is an adaptation of something earlier…an evolution of design, ideas, and architectural styles. Some, like the Queen Anne and Victorian, trace their roots to Europe. Others, like the adobe home and Adirondack, trace their roots to native concepts.

Regardless of the origins, the ideas are adapted to the environment and/or lifestyles of the buyer. Any builder who has framed out a new home will tell you that there is usually something that has to deviate from the plans during construction. And any developer will tell you that what sells in Atlanta will positively not sell in Telluride unless it gets a radical overhaul. But move it does: Atlanta’s sprawling colonial loses the bricks and stately appointments, gets different windows and everything wrapped in wood, and becomes the chic mountain retreat in Colorado. With a few more changes — perhaps a different roof line and a sunken living room — their similar pedigree is unrecognizable to the average homeowner. Whether a grand mansion or a simple dog-trot, virtually all housing styles and trends evolve in manner to suit environment and tastes.

A Man’s Home is his Cottage

The lineage of today’s split levels all trace their origin to the humble cottage. It is a design for the masses; affordable shelter to meet the needs of the common man. In colonial and expansionist America, the cottage often took the form of a simple cabin. In the south, the rooms were rearranged one behind another to improve ventilation, and it became known as the “shotgun shack.” With dormers the cottage became a Cape Cod. With a prominent front porch and combination entryway/living room, it became the bungalow. For the original Saltbox vernacular, the low sloped roof on the windward side of the house forced the cold New England winds around the house. Each new vernacular adapted for the needs of the environment, and was updated to address lifestyle desires.

Although designed for “everyman,” the cottage in its many incarnations was not owned by just anyone. Much of the “middle class” lived in multi-family buildings, rooms built above the family shop, or some other arrangement that meant living “in town.” Single-family homes were largely owned by the well-to-do or families in rural areas. The latter especially relied on their own family members to make a go of things in a pre-automobile landscape. Time together was not only valued, but necessary, and floorplans reflected it.

typical early 20th century bungalowAt right, a typical early 20th Century bungalow.

With the advent of the automobile, however, it was no longer necessary to remain homebound. It was time to pursue interests outside the home; lifestyles became go-go-go and the togetherness of the bungalow became passé.

In 1919 the Bauhaus school was established in Dessau, Germany. In the early 1920s, a similar group, de Stijl, took hold in Holland. Both stressed plain, rectilinear forms and an architectural preference for concrete and steel. Houses would become machines for living, much as automobiles were machines for transportation. The humble cottage — the entire architectural field — would be forever altered by Bauhaus concepts.

The influences of the Bauhaus would not be immediately reflected in middle-class housing, because a number of events conspired to put new home ownership for the common man on hiatus for over a decade. The first was the Great Depression, followed immediately by World War II. Americans did without money and without men at home. They shared homes among multiple generations within the same family. Style and functionality took a back seat to the simple need for affordable shelter.

Everyone can own a house…

After saving the world, returning GIs conquered the old class distinctions at home. Having charged up Corregidor and the beaches at Normandy, the “greatest generation” had no trouble charging up the ladder to middle class. Although we’d all agree they deserved nice middle-class homes, they couldn’t necessarily afford them. Even if they could, the traditional home couldn’t be built fast enough to meet demand.

Prior to this time, many suburban homes were costly, painstakingly constructed, and literally built to order. Homes were ordered from Sears and other design “kits.” Thomas Edison offered a line of poured concrete homes. But almost all would be considered custom built by today’s standards. Attention was paid to fine woodwork, leaded glass, monstrous front porches. Beautiful, but not efficient. Not modern according to the Bauhaus school. Not affordable and not fast enough according to the huge marketplace of potential home buyers.

Bill Levitt and the Advent of Suburbia: The Cottage is stripped down

When consumers have desire and wads of cash, someone will find a way to meet their needs, even when the consumers themselves have no idea what they want. Enter the Levitts, who virtually invented modern suburbia. The Levitt family had gotten involved with a middle-class development during the 1920s; a modest 40-unit project. They switched to constructing upscale homes during the Depression, knowing that the wealthy are largely immune to such trifles. Then World War II came along, and young Bill Levitt became a Lieutenant in the Navy Seabees construction unit, building quick but solid barracks on the other side of the globe. When the war was over, Bill Levitt applied his know-how to build good, low-cost housing for the masses. And the returning GI’s, backed by federal credit, were ready to buy…6,000 units at a time.

The bungalow, Cape, Queen Anne, and other types of “cottage” vernacular were stripped down. The wide overhanging roofs were scaled back, so the houses were turned sideways to look bigger. The attic was reduced to little more than a crawl space. It was no longer important to have the home embrace nature, so the big front porch — that transition between outdoors and indoors — was converted to the city stoop that the buyer was so familiar with.

These houses were to be cheap and quick, machines for living in suburbia. Use a big picture window to show off your furniture and present an image of domestic bliss, but for heaven’s sake minimize the rest of the glazing. No need to see nature, because it’s been bulldozed, and we certainly don’t want the neighbors peering in from 30 feet away. Most importantly, we need to keep costs down. This machine is built faster and cheaper. It doesn’t lend itself to creative family living, but it does make it easy for Dad to get out of the house. After all, he’s used to that now. The barbecue is out back, the garage has a bicycle repair waiting, and the lawn needs mowing. This machine for living, if you haven’t figured it out by now, was Levitt’s modern ranch tract house of the 1940s and 1950s.

typical mid 20th century ranchAt right, a typical postwar tract ranchette, all ready for returning GIs and the baby boom.

Suburbs across the country were riddled with “developments” in which nondescript ranchettes followed one another in an endless stream of sameness. One might have a carport on the left, another might have aluminum awnings, but they were essentially identical.

Moving on Up…

The first thing the G.I. Dad did — after populating his little ranch with babies — was recognize that his house was lacking the very thing that modernization sought to eliminate: A place for the family to gather in comfort. So he promptly refinished the basement into a sort of den/playroom, although he hardly ever used it himself. He was too busy climbing the corporate ladder, and soon the starter ranch was looking a little cramped.

Move on into the 1950s and 1960s, and the cottage expanded again to accommodate the booming American family, who were by now accumulating a horde of stuff. This contraption called the television was having as much impact on the family cottage during the 1950s as the Bauhaus did in the 1920s.

This influence was nothing new. Around 1910 the Victrola had firmly replaced the piano or music stand in the family living room. By 1930 the wireless had assumed the honored spot, spewing forth even more varied entertainment. In 1950 this would give way to the television, which showed the lady of the house that she really ought to have a formal living room (an oxymoron) with the latest sofas, a coffee table, and fine draperies. And in the stripped-down postwar house, a stiff, formal “living room” fit perfectly.

Only problem was that nobody could really “live” in this type of living room, and you certainly can’t entertain with a blaring television in a prominent place. The TV would need its own room…the family den. Unfortunately Dad can’t watch the ballgame in a room full of kids, so they need their own playroom; usually the basement. The babies keep arriving, so the garage has to be refinished for the oldest. This little ranch house is getting a bit crowded…

Enter the Split

The marketplace was making a lot of demands in the mid 1950s: More house, bigger, less monotonous. Developers answered with the original split-level, or three-level, home. The ranch was hacksawed somewhere near the middle, and “split.” One half of the house — garage and bedrooms above — were raised up a little bit. The other half — entry, living room, kitchen, and dining room — were dropped down a little bit. In many cases the living room/kitchen had a basement underneath, and thus the new design had four distinct levels.

Historians today credit Frank Lloyd Wright as the inventor of the split. Indeed, FLW did originate split level living a half century earlier when he “split” his prairie style designs. A visionary, Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the split could be an affordable home for the average American. Eventually he was proven correct, however his early vision of the split was way beyond the means of the average family. FLW would’ve been unlikely to conceive anything like the typical three level home we’re familiar with, so someone else deserves credit for the modern split-level vernacular. But the split does embrace two of FLW’s key concepts: Half-floors dividing living and private areas, and a design that “merges” with the land rather than simply plopping down a house on top of it. So we can safely conclude that whoever did first conceive of hacksawing Levitt’s ranch house was very much influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Back to the split.

The entry area, with large living room, kitchen and dining room attached, was Mom’s domain. It was a scene of bridge parties and women’s club lunches. A few steps up led to bedrooms and bath; a few steps down led to the family den and garage: Dad’s escape zone. The garage might house the workbench, and he could step conveniently into the den to catch a few innings of the game. Go down a few more stairs into the basement beneath the living room, and that’s where you’ll find the kids.

typical 1960ssplit levelAt right, the split level so many baby boomers grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s.

The split had construction advantages as well. Most importantly, it adapted easily to any hillside by putting the garage on the downhill side. The living room level thus rested right on the ground, and the basement was buried below. The den was a transition area, half below grade, and stayed a little cooler than the rest of the house. When you constructed a house on the other side of the street, the builder simply swapped ends. (Consider it a mass-market version of FLW’s philosophy of integrating the house with the landscape). On a flat lot the split worked equally well, adding dimension and multiple levels to an otherwise dull property.

This basic design — with countless variations — was the mainstay of the mid-level housing market through much of the 1950s and 1960s. Baby boomers grew up in split level houses; it was a world of hula-hoops, charcoal grills, transistor radios, Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite. Mike and Carol Brady owned a huge California split, at least in exterior shots. These splits might’ve been a nightmare as far as Frank Lloyd Wright was concerned, but they continue to prove that his concepts were timeless.

Colonial Influences & Inflation

By the end of the 1960s the full-sized, 4 bedroom 2˝ bath center hall colonial was in vogue among upscale developments. These colonials didn’t use space efficiently like the bungalows, Cape Cods or Victorians popular among previous generations. But they were big, and impressive, and the hallways and full-height floors separated the family nicely in their own compartments. Perhaps most importantly for young homeowners, it was different from the splits they grew up in. Instead of bedrooms adjacent to one another, the master suite could be placed on the other side of the house.

The mid-level homeowners aspired to the same big colonial, but like their post-war parents, couldn’t necessarily afford it. 1970s inflation contributed to the widening gap; by 1979 mortgage rates would rocket to unheard of levels. Developers had no choice but to scale down the big barns.

Designers and architects recognized the trend toward colonials and sought to meet market demands with a less costly alternative. Some downsized the colonial, some attempted to spiff up the tried-and-true split, while others sought even more economical means of construction. One of those designers, long forgotten, figured out a way to “unsplit” the split level by dividing the entryway rather than the entire house. By constructing two levels instead of three or four, it created the appearance of a colonial and even improved on the construction economies of the split. Thus the bi-level house was born.

Borrowing heavily from the split, the bi-level put the living area on one full height level, but it had no stairs between common areas and bed/bath areas. The lower level continued to house the garage and den, and generally had less than full height ceilings. Square footage was kept high, but construction costs were greatly reduced. Perhaps most importantly, the exterior styling could be presented in an almost unlimited variety to meet buyer demand. Colonials, Tudors, contemporaries, you name it. Even George Washington’s stately home at Mount Vernon was replicated with columns.

typical bi-level with a quasi-colonial-tudor facadeAt right, a bi-level shows its versatility with a quasi Tudor/Colonial facade. Although the multiple roof lines are mere ornamentation, they add a striking depth to this exterior.

These new “Bi-levels” were affordable, attractive, efficient. So efficient, in fact, that without the exterior trappings, the bi-level is more or less the Bauhaus ideal of a “machine for living.” Like the split, developers could easily mirror a bi-level to make best use of a lot; the side opposite the garage was generally buried a bit to create a more pleasing appearance. On narrow lots, the front door was easily adapted to one end of the house, which was then rotated 90ş to fit the lot. On lots where the house backed up to a hill, or subterranean construction was otherwise impractical, the mid-level entry was lowered, a full staircase built inside, and the raised ranch was born.

Bullish on Wall Street, Bearish on Split Levels

Through the 1970s and early 1980s the bi-level and raised ranch had eclipsed the split as the mid-level choice for new construction. The split, after all, looked like a split, whereas the bi-level could be given a facade to look like just about anything. It delivered the same square footage as a split at lower cost, and was an easy sale as a “junior colonial” or whatever the marketing department chose to call it.

As the economy began to recover from inflation, the energy crisis, and the “malaise” of the 1970s, many middle-class Americans simply grew too wealthy to bother with the common splits and bi-levels. These became starter homes, or purely the domain of the lower middle class; new construction moved almost en masse to colonial derivatives by the mid 1980s. Finally, the big bull stock markets of the 1990s all but put the bi-level out of business as more and more “McMansions” sprang up on sold-out farmland.

The Future…

For now, the era of the split-level, split-entry, bi-level and raised ranch as a significant factor in new construction is over. A few continue to be built on small lots or as retirement homes, and even some new developments, but these are too few to have any real significance in the market. The day of the divided entry is past.

What then, of the millions of splits and bi-levels that remain? Chances are that if you are reading this, you either own one or are considering one. If so, take heart…although new construction has virtually ceased, the versatility and resale value of divided entry homes is and will remain strong.

Looking to the future, the strength of the true split (or three-level) home is in its charm. A well appointed exterior, surrounded by mature landscaping, create a home that is tough to beat. Inside, these homes hark back to a kinder, gentler era; closer families, traditional values. As more and more buyers recognize these intrinsic features, existing splits will experience a renaissance similar to what the bungalow is enjoying today.

As for the bi-level, that unlikely offspring of Bauhaus efficiency, Levitt construction techniques and 1970s inflation, the picture is different but equally positive. While it is difficult to imagine a day when bi-levels and raised ranches will be recognized as a highly desirable design, you can never deny their versatility. Once homeowners recognize that they own a blank canvas awaiting their artistic imprint, they will realize that each bi-level and raised ranch has the potential to be transformed into a unique “dream house.”

It’s also significant that most divided entry homes were built in neighborhoods or developments. Often these homes are close together — but not too close — close enough to easily walk to numerous neighboring homes. With landscaping fully mature by now, these neighborhoods are aesthetically pleasing. Streets, sidewalks and lawns offer unlimited opportunities to share basketball hoops, laugh with friends, borrow tools, and greet neighbors in vibrant mini-communities. Although it may not reflect as highly in resale dollars, the real value of these neighborhoods is worth far more than any cavernous gated McMansion plopped atop a five acre lot.

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