Alaska Life

Curious Alaska: Why are there so many split-level houses in Anchorage?

Curious Alaska is a weekly feature powered by your questions. What do you want to know or want us to investigate about life in Alaska, stories behind the news or why things are the way they are? Let us know in the form at the bottom of the story.

Question: Why are there so many split-level houses in Anchorage?

If you’ve lived in Anchorage for a while, chances are you’ve been inside a split-level house. Maybe you grew up in one. Maybe you own one now.

Maybe both are true for you, like the reporter writing this from the daylight basement of her 1972 Anchorage split level home.

Like strip malls and the color beige, split-level homes are an unglamorous but quintessential part of Anchorage’s built environment. You’ll find them everywhere, from Muldoon to College Village to Turnagain to Oceanview to the Hillside: stout, box-like, with garages tucked underneath or carports.

Barbara Ramsey has sold real estate in Anchorage for more than 30 years, and wrote a column in the Daily News about it for decades. I asked her how many Anchorage split-level homes she’s been inside. She laughed.

“Oh, millions,” she said. “It’s just an iconic house for Anchorage.”

What is a split-level?

Split-levels — houses where the entry is at a “split,” on a landing between sets of steps that lead upstairs and downstairs — are probably the single most common configuration of a single-family home in Anchorage, says Clai Porter, a longtime Anchorage architect and builder who started working in the state around the early-1970s peak of the style’s popularity.

The entry steps lead to an upper floor, which usually houses a kitchen, living area and bedrooms, and a lower daylight basement, where there may be additional bedrooms.

The Alaska Architectural Style Guide, a publication of the state Office of History and Archeology, defines a split-level as a two- or three-story home with “horizontal massing,” an entry split between levels or on the middle level, and a “prominent garage” incorporated into the design.

“Split-levels are abundant in Alaska,” the guide says. Architecturally, “they will rarely be significant individually.”

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So how did so many of them get built here? The answer has a lot to do with when Anchorage came of age as a city. Split-levels became popular, especially in the Midwest and eastern United States, in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to pack more square footage into the same foundation footprint as a single-story ranch house.

Split-levels occupied a special place in the Anchorage psyche, says Julie Decker, the curator of the Anchorage Museum and the author of several books on Alaska design and art.

“Families were growing larger,” she said. “They didn’t want to change the architecture of the classic Midwest neighborhood, that ranch style home.”

To accommodate more space, a second story would be added.

“It’s taking that basic ranch house and then creating more living space,” Decker said.

The design also allowed for a “distinct separation of space,” according to the Alaska Architectural Style Guide. “They provided practical ways to incorporate a location for two new family possessions, the car and the TV.”

Builders in Alaska liked them even more because without a crawlspace, they were easier to construct in soils where the frost line was a consideration, Porter said. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as Anchorage was experiencing an oil-stoked boom in population, entire neighborhoods of split-level homes went up in Anchorage.

Over the decades, they’ve remained the dominant architectural form of single-family homes in Anchorage, even as tastes have changed.

“The aesthetics are not always as pleasing as they should be,” said Porter.

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Owners have remodeled, and remodeled again, the city’s split-level homes — often adding Arctic entries to make up for the cramped entryways; knocking out walls to the original galley kitchens to make modern, kitchen-island-focused, open-concept cooking spaces; and adding garages because many were built with carports, according to Ramsey, the real estate agent and columnist.

She thinks of the period as Anchorage’s late adolescence, and the split-level as the house that defined the era. By now, 45 or 50 years in, most split-levels “will typically have multiple fingerprints of multiple owners,” Ramsey said.

Boxy and unfashionable as they may be, split-levels are where a lot of Anchorage life happens.

Some of the remodels incorporate unexpected materials, Decker said. “I think there’s some really fun ones in the Turnagain neighborhood, with cool materials introduced,” she said.

In a place where strip malls house fine dining restaurants, alchemizing mass-produced 1970s houses into something unique and artistic is another very Anchorage move.

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