Split-Level Homes Are Perfect, and I Will Die On This Hill

published Dec 3, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Design: Apartment Therapy

Let me set a hyper-specific scene for you: It’s summer 1999. A hot Midwestern sun is shining down on a pack of 8- and 9-year-old girls hopped up on Capri Suns and homemade Rice Krispies treats. Through a boombox, my hometown radio station introduces Shania Twain’s new hit, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”. Clad in a Limited Too one-piece, I plug my nose and fling myself into the turquoise embrace of an above-ground pool. Reader, if I could bottle up this day and feast upon it forever, I’d never die. 

My mind drifts back to this moment often, and not just because of the captivating nostalgia of the ‘90s. I don’t remember if it was a friend’s summer-month birthday party or a post-Brownie Scout get-together. I just remember the home: my dream home. It’s strange to admit, 22 years later, that I’m still obsessed with the home of my beloved childhood pal Kalyn, but it’s true. (Hi Kalyn!)

Kalyn’s home was a split-level house, and I’d never seen one before. I loved walking inside her family’s warm, happy home, with the entryway leading to the living spaces and the kitchen. A short trip upstairs led to the bedrooms, and half a flight of stairs below was a family room that opened to their amazing outdoor situation (an above-ground pool, which is another thing I’m darn near obsessed with). Plus, they had a basement, as most Midwestern homes do, with the most impressive play kitchen set I’ve ever witnessed. We girls didn’t just “play house.” We lived it, baby.

As a millennial who eventually wants a family and thus a place to house my offspring and partner, I have my Someday sights set on a split-level (also known as a tri-level) home. Facing similar socioeconomic trials as my millennial peers (and the Zoomers, whom I adore, am rooting for, and apologize for my, “How do you do, fellow kids?” energy), I’m placing my bets on a split-level renaissance within the next 15 years. Let me elaborate.

Split-level homes evolved from the ubiquitous post-World War II ranch-style home (shout out to my boy Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style). As the Baby Boomer generation continued to boom, so did the desire for additional residential space. However, typical lot sizes limited the number of bedrooms that could be added. Thus, the tri-level was born: a sophisticated, modern look for groovy ‘60s families. Even the iconic Brady family lived in a tri-level (at least on the outside, anyway).

Now, as younger homeowners and hopefuls look to their futures, I’m calling on all millennials and Gen Zers to consider the split-level — even if you think it appears outdated. First, let’s think about space. The tiny home movement is in full swing. Split-levels are far from the square footage of those spaces, but they’re also not comparable to McMansions. Younger generations just don’t need or want the extra space… but we do want to make the most of what we have.

The Marie Kondo fanatic in me loves that each floor and wing of the split-level home has a distinct purpose: the bedroom floor, the formal entrance and kitchen floor, the rec room and laundry space, and for the lucky few: the bonus basement. You’re always in close proximity to family members while maintaining the privacy of designated spaces. Further, as the ‘60s and ‘70s taught us, split-level homes are an affordable alternative to larger houses. 

And they’re unique! There are countless ways to modernize and renovate existing split-level homes that haven’t even been discovered yet! (But if you’re interested, check out some inspo.) While I acknowledge there are some structural split-level concerns that need to be addressed — namely, all the staircases posing accessibility issues for those with physical disabilities — you’ve got to admit, there’s potential here. And if you, like me, are a freak for MCM design, these homes are goldmines. In the immortal words of Shania Twain: “Let’s go, girls!” — and make split-levels the next big thing.