“… and the first runner-up is: the split-level house.” Mid-20th-Century Split-Level Houses: A National Overview
Richard Cloues, Ph.D.
This presentation provides an overview of the history of the mid-20th-century Split-Level House in the United States. The history of Split-Level Houses in Georgia is covered in a companion presentation entitled “Mid-20th-Century Split-Level Houses in Georgia.”
In our office's study of mid-20th-century houses, up to now, we've been looking pretty much at Ranch Houses. And that's because the Ranch House was the most popular mid-20th-century house in Georgia and the nation. By way of analogy to another mid-20thcentury phenomenon:
The ranch house was the reigning "Miss America" of mid-century houses.
But in every mid-century Miss America contest there was always that worthy second place contestant â€“ and that bittersweet moment when Bert Parks would announce "and the first runner-up is ... "
Well, the "first runner up" in the mid-20thcentury housing contest was the Split-Level House.
Never as numerous or widespread as the Ranch House, it was nevertheless an important mid-century house.
In spite of its second-place showing, the reasons for its mid-century popularity are clear: It combined some of the best features of the new Ranch House (which was wildly popular at the time) and the traditional two-story house (which was totally out of favor at the time) in an efficient, cost-effective way.
And it provided a distinct alternative for new homebuyers.
Like the Ranch House, the Split-Level House was a brand-new â€œtypeâ€? of mid-20th-century house.
Its most obvious break with tradition was its distinctive form -- like no other house before it. Let's define what we mean by the new â€œSplit-Level House:â€œ The Split-Level House is a three-level house:
With a main or ground-floor level, one-story high ("first floor" in this diagram), usually housing the living, dining, and kitchen spaces ... And then a two-story section, with bedrooms and bathrooms half a flight up from the main level, and space for additional bedrooms, a recreation room, utility rooms, or sometimes the garage half a flight down from the main level.
Here's another way to look at it:
the main or ground-floor level, for the living room, dining room, kitchen (highlighted in green) â€Ś
an upper level one-half flight up for bedrooms and bathrooms (highlighted in yellow)â€Ś
and a lower level one-half flight down for a rec room (or maybe an extra bedroom, or utility room, or garage) (highlighted in orange).
This particular house has an integral garage in the lower level -- a common feature.
Others might have the garage attached to one end of the house ...
Or a carport.
Many people think that the Split-Level was a mid-century spin-off from the Ranch House.
And indeed, they share some design characteristics: they both are new types of houses â€Ś they both had distinctly new plans â€Ś and they both came in a variety of similar architectural styles.
And with regard to their plans, in particular: If you just looked at the highlighted part of the two-dimensional plan of this Split-Level House, you might think you were looking at a Ranch House.
But those of you with sharp eyes might notice something different -- those halfflights of stairs in the middle of the plan.
Those half-flights of stairs are the key to the distinct three-dimensional form of the SplitLevel House â€“ the plan-form which defines this new house type â€Ś
and which makes it so different from the Ranch House (or any other house, for that matter).
And -- not only was the Split Level distinctly different from the Ranch House in terms of its architecture -- it also had its own distinct history, quite apart from that of the Ranch House.
So now let's step back and take a look at the history of the Split-Level House nationally. Something that at this time is still a little sketchy at best ...
Many people think that the Split-Level House was invented in the 1950s ... when was so popular.
But -- there's more to the historical story than that!
To tell that story, Iâ€™m going to take you on a chronological journey backwards through time, from the late 1950s to what might have been the beginning in the early 20th century. And to get us going on this journey, we'll have some help from another mid-20thcentury split-level wonder:
The Greyhound "SceniCruiser" bus! (This split-level bus, by the way, was designed for Greyhound by the renown industrial designer Raymond Lowey in 1954 â€“ in the hey-day of the Split-Level House.) So if everybody would please board the bus, we'll begin our journey!
Our journey is going to start in the heartland of our country, where in the mid-1950s the nation's largest manufacturer of singlefamily houses has just revamped its portfolio to include a variety of new Split-Level Houses. Using standardized plans, National Homes Corporation prefabricated houses and sold them by the hundreds of thousands all across the country.
And yet these new mid-1950s â€œstandardizedâ€? houses had been designed by Charles Goodman, a famous mid-century Modernist architect, with an office in the Washington DC area.
This pretty much confirmed the status of the Split-Level House as an important midcentury American house type.
Here are two more Goodman designs.
At about this same time, custom-designed Split-Level Houses were being built in Arapahoe Acres, just south of Denver, Colorado. Arapahoe Acres today has the distinction of having been the first post-World War II subdivision in the country to be listed in the National Register (in 1998).
Now get out your passports because we're headed north to Canada to take a look at what was going on up there a couple of years earlier: the "Trend house" project, sponsored by the west coast Canadian lumber industry, between 1952 and 1953.
Among the nearly dozen houses designed and built as part of the program was this Contemporary-style Split-Level House.
This cross-section diagram shows the three split levels and the half-flights of stairs that connect them.
At this same time, back in this country, Popular Mechanics magazine -- a magazine targeted at the post-war do-it-yourselfers -included a more modest Split-Level House in its "trend" house of the future.
But this humble-looking Split Level also had claims to greatness: It was designed by Herman York, a Long Island architect in the firm Matern & York, who is credited by some as having "invented" the split-level tract house after working with the Levitt Brothers at the first Levittown in the late 1940s.
Another place where the Split-Level House got some attention in the early 1950s was in Lexington, Massachusetts, with the "Five Fields" development, starting in 1950. A consortium of Modernist architects known as "The Architects Collaborative" and led by Walter Gropius at Harvard University designed a number of "demonstration" houses for this subdivision, and among them was the Split Level.
Here's one of the "demonstration" SplitLevel Houses.
These diagrams clearly show their split-level nature. So was this "high-Level" operation the origin of the mid-century Split-Level House? Well, in fact, it was not, as we will see. But to see why, we've got to go further back in time, into the 1940s ... and to do that we need to take a different split-level bus, one from that decade:
The 1946 "Landliner" bus. So everybody transfer, and we'll be heading off to 1949 ...
and to Hollin Hills, in Alexandria, Virginia, where Charles Goodman was designing Contemporary-style Split-Level Houses for this innovative suburban subdivision.
You may remember our previous encounter with this architect and his mid-1950s splitlevel designs for the National Homes Corporation
Well, Hollin Hills in 1949 was quite a different venture -- decidedly upscale, with individually designed houses on big lots.
Here's what the development looked like in its earliest days ...
and here are a couple of then-and-now photos of some of Goodman's Split-Level Houses.
Here's a collage of the interiors of one of these houses -- arranged somewhat unusually with the bedrooms in the onestory ground-level section and the family living spaces above each other in the twostory section, all connected by the trademark half-flights of stairs.
So does Charles Goodman get the credit for inventing the Split-Level House in 1949? Well ... check out the real estate section of your 1949 newspaper and see what was all the rage in the suburbs around New York City at the very same time:
Yet another version of the "new" Split-Level House, aimed at quite a different market ... But just as deliberately, self-consciously, intentionally "split level..."
... right down to the use of the term in its advertising -- among the earliest uses of the term "split level" that I've seen.
And now, if you would look up from your newspaper, you can see some of those late 1940s Split-Level tract houses in those Long Island subdivisions as we drive by. No less of an authority than Consumers Union described these as “the first split levels … in tract houses ….” But: are they the first Split-Level Houses of any kind, anywhere? Let’s go on and see.
Our bus now takes a sharp westward turn toward 1947, and look what appears over the mid-western horizon: This very contemporary, very flat-roofed, very Split-Level House.
This house had an unusual provenance: It was designed and built by a museum -- the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis -- as an "idea house" demonstrating the latest thinking in house plans.
Here is an elevation, showing the distinctive split-level form, and a floor plan, showing the half-flights of stairs.
Here's the family's living and dining area ...
here's the kitchen and porch ...
and here are those signature half-flights of stairs, from the main level, going up a half story to the bedrooms and down a half story to the recreation room and garage.
Here's a point of interest: The 1947 LIFE magazine article about this house contained another very early use of the term â€œsplit level."
By way of contrast: that same year (1947), this version of the Split-Level House was published by the Ideal Plan Service. Not quite as avant-garde as the Walker Art Center house, and aimed at a different clientele, it was described as a "Hi-Lo" house, suggesting that the term "Split Level" was not fully in circulation at the time.
Now turn on your overhead reading lights again ... and take a look at the 1946 Book of Small Houses. This book was produced right after World War II by a consortium of financial institutions in the home mortgage business. Houses featured in this book were considered to be "good risks" for home mortgage lenders â€Ś
And right there on page 45 was a fully developed Split-Level House â€Ś described as having "staggered floor levels.â€?
Also take a look at this house plan book, published in 1945, right as World War II was ending.
Not only are several Split-Level Houses featured â€Ś
but the write-up for one of them contains the earliest use in print of the term "split level" that I have seen!
Right after that it shows up everywhere, but especially in real-estate articles and advertisements.
Look what else was being published at about this same time: A number of "generic" house-plan books featuring examples of more modest SplitLevel Houses.
With this one, the "split level" seems to have been just stuck onto the side of an American Small house ...
and this one shows the front-to-back rather than side-to-side orientation of the half flights of stairs between the levels of the house â€“ a configuration which seems to have been popular in some of these plans for smaller houses.
In the early 1940s, during World War II, the federal Defense Homes Corporation built some small Split-Level Houses at its Colonial Hills industrial community in Worthington, Ohio.
Construction on the community started in 1942.
Most of the early houses were variants of the American Small House ...
but a number were small Split Levels.
Here are those two types of houses as they appear in the community today.
Well, now, I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but this is not the end of our trip, and if we're going to continue on our journey back through time, we've got to get on yet another split-level bus, from an even earlier decade ... because we're now headed back into the 1930s ... and all the way west to California ...
to the Monterey Heights suburb of Los Angeles, where developers were building many small split-level attached houses like these on steeply sloping hillsides in the late 1930s â€Ś
and then to San Francisco, where similar houses were being built by local developer Henry Doelger (so that they were locally called "Doelgers").
None of these houses is very well documented ... except for the fact that they are clearly split-levels in form. But there is something, from the same time period, back in the country's heartland, that is very well documented, and suggests the origins of the Split-Level House:
The Sears, Roebuck & Company's house catalogs -- which included at the very end of the decade this fully developed single-family Colonial Revival-style Split-Level House! And this was just the end (or the beginning, depending on which way you're going through time) of nearly a decade of splitlevel catalog houses from Sears:
Two years earlier, in 1938, Sears included this unusual-looking Split-Level House -- an International-style Split-Level House – showing how “one of our stepped-up level homes could be converted … into one of a more modern aspect.”
Three years earlier, in its 1935 catalog, Sears featured the "Homecrest," another fully developed, Colonial Revival-styled, SplitLevel House ...
and the "Auburn," an English Vernacular Revival-style Split-Level House.
And a year before that, in 1934, Sears put forth the "Modern Home No. 3405" -another bona fide Split-Level House ... which Sears described as "one of our newest suggestions."
It looks like the first appearance of the SplitLevel House in a Sears catalog was in 1933, with these two examples. The catalog text noted that these houses employed “a new principle of construction which is a big money saver” and that their “flexible plans” provided “the maximum living area at the lowest cost consistent with good construction” -- something that Sears called a "stepped-up-level house."
Here's the actual printed advertisement for one of those two houses: the 1933 Colonial Revival-style "Concord" Split Level house, with the little cross-section diagram showing the "stepped-up levels" of this new house. But that's not all:
That same year -- in 1933 -- at the Chicago World's Fair ("Century of Progress"), this brand-new Split-Level House was on display, for all the world to see, as the latest thing in American houses -- right out of the pages of the 1933 Sears catalog!
And so in light of all this fanfare, one might ask: Did Sears, Roebuck & Company invent the middle-class Split-Level House in 1933? For a while, I thought so.
But it’s always a tricky thing when a historian says something was “invented” or was “the first …” because there’s always something that might make you wonder ...
For example, there's this house, and possibly others like it, custom-designed and built in 1931, in an upscale Durham, North Carolina suburb. According to a walking tour guide, and evident in this historic photograph, the house has three distinct "half" levels, and it is set on a sloping lot in the split-level way.
And there’s more – but to see it, we’re going to have to get on an even earlier split-level bus -- the 1929 Kenworth – and take a drive around the mid-1920s back in Chicago …
and take a look at some houses that were designed for a 1927 competition sponsored by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Look what shows up:
A full-blown, reasonably sized, reasonably affordable, “sideways-oriented” Split-Level House. I say “sideways” because the Chicago Tribune competition restricted designs to a 30-foot-wide (i.e., very narrow) urban lot. So the houses had to be sited in a long-andnarrow manner.
Nevertheless, here it is, in all its glory: the Split-Level House, in the mid-1920s. This color-coded view may make it a little easier to see the configuration of the house: “Red” is for the main floor, “Green” is for the raised bedroom level, and “Blue” is for the depressed level, under the bedrooms. (There is also a fourth below-ground level.)
And it wasn’t the only one; there were several others.
Now -- if you want to see something even more thought-provoking, from even earlier, we’re going to have to get back on our 1920s bus and go all the way back to California … and all the way back to 1923 ...
when the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the monumental Storer house in Hollywood.
The Storer house is architecturally significant for many reasons, but there's one that seems to have escaped notice: The way the house was fit into its sloping lot.
The house is located in the rugged hills above Hollywood ... on a steeply sloping site.
This Historic American Buildings Survey drawing gives some sense of the sloping lot that Wright had to contend with â€Ś
and this shows how he “accommodated” this huge house to its sloping site: by staggering or splitting the floor levels and connecting them by half-flights of stairs ...
shown more clearly in this diagram of the main body of the house (which I have annotated for clarity).
living room upper bedroom
dining room lower bedroom
Again, what Wright did was to subdivide the house into staggered or stepped half-floors – split levels – connected by half-flight stairways --to make it fit better into the hillside.
In his autobiography, Wright noted his disapproval of the way builders and developers were cutting into and leveling the hills outside Los Angeles, so it would stand to reason that he would look for a different solution to the problem ... and, in doing so, creating what appears to have been the first fully developed SplitLevel House in America. So – did Frank Lloyd Wright “invent” the Split-Level house?! I think it comes down to this: The idea, at least, of the mid-20th-century Split-Level House may have come from Wright’s 1923 Storer house in California …
And then a few family-oriented but still custom-designed Split-Level Houses were first published in the 1927 Chicago Tribune design competition â€Ś
And then, in the 1930s, Sears, Roebuck & Company was the first to promote the SplitLevel House as a viable middle-class house -to popularize it -- to legitimize it as an acceptable type of house, so to speak â€Ś
And finally, after a hiatus during World War II, the Split-Level House burst on the scene at the mid-century mark as a viable competitor to the Ranch House.
Well, it's been quite a ride back through almost half a century of time on the SplitLevel bus tour. I hope you've enjoyed the trip as much as I have, and I hope you now have a better sense of the history of the Split-Level House in America.
Mid-20th-Century Split-Level Houses in Georgia
For information about the Split-Level House in Georgia, please take a look at our companion piece entitled “Mid-20th-Century Split-Level Houses in Georgia.”
Richard Cloues, Ph.D.
110 “… and the first runner-up is: the split-level house.” Mid-20th-Century Split-Level Houses: A National Overview
Richard Cloues, Ph.D.