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The Home Guru: Splits that Sizzled Then Fizzled

Spits were the rage in the 50s and 60s, but what to do if you want update them for today's look?

"Nobody in the past 20 years has ever once asked me to design them a split-level home,” says Michael Piccirillo, a Westchester architect who designs homes both for new construction and remodeling. "But a lot of people ask me to re-design already-existing splits for a more contemporary look and more open space."

While it offered hot sizzle among builders and home-buyers in the 1950s and 1960s, the split totally fizzled by 1970. Nevertheless, splits are a significant part of our residential landscape in Westchester and Putnam Counties, as across the entire nation, because they were built at the height of the post-WWII suburban housing boom.

Most of these homes are still standing, and not many are disguised to hide what they are, unlike raised ranches, now being treated to “re-dos” as mock colonials by adding a few details to the façade like a portico with columns.

That’s harder to do with the lopsided configuration of a split, having one story where the living room, dining room and kitchen reside, and a connecting two-story structure with stairs that drop a half flight in either direction, ascending to the bedrooms and bath above and usually a family room and a garage below. A fourth living space is sometimes added in the basement below the living room, and another bedroom, perhaps a master suite, in the attic space above the living room, again ascending only a half flight of stairs.

But a creative architect can do wonders.

Today people either love or hate split-levels, whether they are already living in one or are in search of a home.

On the love side, the  interesting configuration of levels appeals to some people who sense that they get a lot of house within the footprint with every inch used for living space, including the basement and attic. Some like the idea of ascending only a half flight of stairs to get where they’re going. And still others like the privacy the design affords, allowing parents to be quietly on a different level from their kids’ bedrooms or playroom.

On the hate side, it is felt that the design’s boxy rooms make it difficult to achieve a more open floor plan which is now preferred. The façade is usually dominated by the one-car garage upon which the two-level wing rests. And, while the concept was originally created for slopes, the majority of such homes are built on flat land, requiring that a flight of steps be climbed outside before getting to the front door.

Also, because this style was built as an economic option to the more traditional and more expensive colonials and capes preferred in the preceding decades, many were constructed with little attempt to add detail or charm. For instance, they didn’t have many windows, sometimes featuring a side wall with none at all.

And finally and perhaps more importantly, the kitchen and family gathering space are necessarily separated by this design, which flies in the face of how families want to live today.

Here are some solutions to put the sizzle back into the fizzle of the split-level.

To solve the problem of adding family living to the kitchen, an addition can be built to the back of the house. Piccirillo says that it is easier to do with a split than a ranch, because you don’t have to build as high up to get to the kitchen level as you do with a raised ranch to connect a family room.

To add detail to the exterior, a bump-out might be added to the entrance to give more interest to the exterior and more needed space in the entry. Also, drab exteriors can be upgraded with new finishes, the addition of trim details and additional windows.

So, yes, there is hope for even the homeliest split with a little creative thinking and a good architect.  

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® (www.PrimaveraHomes.com), affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a lifestyles journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions about selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.

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Elena May 19, 2012 at 12:48 PM
Owning a split, I can attest to the practicality. It is an easy house to live in with kids and simple to maintain, being "newer". The previous owners did the playroom addition off the kitchen, which is the highlight of the house--sunny, open, and a big space. Someday I will add the master suite to the attic. Crown moldings, chair rails, and wood floors plus a granite/stainless kitchen go a long way to adding charm. But it is a challenging style of house. Ours has a hip roof on the smallish 2 story side, which helps it look appealing from the curb. Plantings and good paint take care of the rest of the curb appeal. After all that, it's not bad.
Carolyn Adams May 21, 2012 at 11:02 AM
I grew up in a split level (yes, in the 60's!) and I have very fond memories as a child of that house. My parents' living room was not terribly formal and we used our dining room frequently so I recall lots of activity on that second level between kitchen, dining room and living room. My sister and I had the attic bedroom and it was like a big dorm room. I liked the 'compartmentalized' aspect of the house because it seemed like there were alot of rooms to play in and everyone wasn't on top of each other! Now I live in a colonial and my brother has a split level in NJ -- and honestly I envy their house. But they are hard to find.
Katie Ryan O'Connor May 21, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Great post! We have a 1964 split built into a sloped lot and it's every inch as described above. It certainly has its drawbacks, but I've come to love the simple lines and enjoy the different "zones" or compartments as Carolyn mentioned. If the kids are in the family room downstairs I can shut the door off the kitchen and it's remarkably quiet upstairs. My dream is to open the entire entrance floor (now a living room, kitchen and dining room) into one great room and gain space somewhere with additions off the back. Lottery winning will be required ;-)
Heron May 21, 2012 at 01:38 PM
When I look at the first photo of the split level, I wonder whether the house was originally designed this way in the 1950s. It looks like the third floor was an addition.

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