A Brief History of Basement Bars, the Neat Home Feature That Deserves a Comeback

published May 13, 2021
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Credit: Courtesy of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador Real Estate

I come from a proud family of bar folk. My earliest memory involves being behind my dad’s bar, poking my tiny toddler finger into the disgusting holes of the bar mats, and sniffing the scent of stale beer. (I imagine that’s why, to this day, I can’t stand the aroma of beer. Wine or whiskey, please!) My paternal grandma Ann had a groovy retro rec room in her basement, complete with wood-paneled walls and all things olive green, brown, and orange. But the real kicker? Her basement bar.

Straight up: I love a basement bar. (And so do over 16,000 other people on Instagram.) While I’ve spent the pandemic desperately missing the din of my favorite dive (I love you, Shaker’s on Clark) and the imaginative egg white cocktail concoctions of The Violet Hour, there’s nothing quite like a wet bar in a pal’s basement where last call doesn’t exist. And I’m not alone in campaigning for the comeback of the basement bar. Pull up a stool, pour yourself a drink of your choice, and let me tell you the tale of my absolute favorite home feature.

Believe it or not, the basement bars that you recognize from the ‘70s trace their roots all the way back to the Victorian Era’s tea carts. These carts, handy for parlor socializing, later evolved into what we know today as the bar cart. Once the Prohibition of the 1930s was repealed (I’ll drink to that!), bar carts kicked into high gear, and were featured more prominently in the homes of the 1950s, taking on the form of a more cabinet-like structure, and even securing a space in the offices of our favorite Mad Men

Following World War II, the housing boom and a stable economy allowed families to spread out in their homes and enjoy suburban space. But while WWII was over, Americans were still struggling and grieving over the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Any opportunity to let off some steam was welcomed, and a more formal home entertainment space for adults emerged. 

By the 1970s, the bar carts and wet and dry bars of the mid-century fell to the wayside in many homes, where more formal bars were being constructed in basements (or in rec rooms in regions where basements weren’t conventional). Especially in more rural communities where bars or restaurants weren’t as prevalent as they were in urban centers, having a group of friends with different home bars to choose from offered variety in entertainment and socialization.   

The retro look of the classic American basement bar died down after the ‘70s as homeowners’ needs and styles shifted. Though it’s certainly not unusual today to spot a home with a built-in bar in the family room or basement, these updated versions just don’t hit the same as a mid-century rathskeller or homemade tiki bar

Credit: Justin J. DuPré

With regard to their impact on the value of a home, basement bars are pretty neutral features. Realtor Lou Zucaro, who specializes in mid-century modern architecture, says, “I would say from a real estate point of view, they fall more into the category of a ‘Thank you very much’ item that could go either way in terms of personal preference for a buyer, but don’t necessarily add or detract from value.”

No matter what, I know I’ll be looking for one when I eventually buy my first home. And if you’re lucky enough to find a home with a preserved retro bar, raise a glass for me!