Maybe you’ve been watching Mare of Easttown like Neal and I have these last few weeks, and probably you’ve heard that what makes the prestige crime drama so compelling is the accents. Kate Winslet says /wooder/ in the pilot, etc. etc.
Well, we finished the show last night, after its great finale, and what I loved the most about the show was Mare’s house. Here’s the exterior:
It’s a split-level; half of the bottom floor is underground, and the top floor is like 4 feet above the grass. This is the kind of house I grew up in. For 18 years I knew only this kind of home as a home, and everything I learned about the world out there came from TV and movies, and that’s what I want to write about today. In all those 18 years I basically never saw another on-screen split-level house, even though pretty much everyone I knew who didn’t live in a townhome lived in one.
So I never got to see my home as a Real American Home.
Much of this is pragmatic: good luck filming inside a split-level house. As soon as you walk in you can only go up or down. Here’s Mare’s foyer:
Now: that’s a fairly huge split-level foyer. Ours was maybe half that, no fancy windows on either side of the door. (Neal’s mom’s old house had this big a foyer; the realtors who sold it called it an Executive Split-Level.) Given that so many scenes in homes take place at the door—welcoming home a long-lost relative, receiving a package that kicks the plot into motion—what you need is a home with the kind of foyer that branches out around the floor. Like this:
Look at all the places The Simpsons can go once they close the door! They can go to the formal living room, they can go to the dining room, they can go upstairs, they can go back to the coat closet, they can go over to the chest of drawers where they’re storing who knows what!
These were the kinds of houses they made in Reston, or Great Falls, or even the newer homes across Herndon Parkway from us, the ones that were all brick on the outside and had big high church-like windows over the front doors.
I know the Simpsons are far from rich, but where I grew up theirs was the kind of house wealthy people lived in. So when I watched Mare of Easttown, though it’s set hours from where I grew up, I felt like I was home again, living among the kind of people I knew growing up, and that we also had stories worth telling.
Mare’s house is gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. Look at the laid brick walkway, above, and the black paved drive. Look at this kitchen that stems from the living room at the top of the steps:
We don’t really see it in the show, but that back door seems to go to a mudroom kinda thing that dollars for donuts was added on to the house years after it was built, which somewhere back there I just know has a back door that opens to a tiny painted wood deck, the paint long peeled and flaking, with warped-nail wooden steps leading down to the backyard surrounded by a chainlink fence. I love the built-in cabinet by the fridge, and all the undercounter lighting. And I love how it’s got, from certain seats at the eat-in table, a direct view of the front door:
My guess is that when Mare’s house was built, that kitchen was two rooms separated by walls: a kitchen and a dining room. Maybe you could access the kitchen from the top of the stairs, but it’s also possible you had to walk through the living room, over into the dining room in the back corner of the top floor, and then into the kitchen—like with the split-level in Fairfax my pal BJ lived in for a few years after college. And also the split-level he grew up in in Herndon, a house that was like a second home to me. That house, the house on Maleady Drive, was special in that the formal living room was on a kind of half level halfway up the stairs, with the top of the landing leading you to the dining room and kitchen.
I don’t know what else to say. Are they even making split-level homes anymore? A cursory search online says yes, but they’re big and fancy. Was our house big and fancy when my parents bought it, as new construction, in 1976? Unlikely. For a number of years there were six of us living in there. Here’s what it looks like:
There used to be a crabapple tree there to the left of the driveway. The garage was added after I was born. There’s no way to get into the house from there but to walk out and down that walkway, which I don’t remember being at an oblique angle. There’s no way we wouldn’t have cut right across the lawn.