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When a House Was a Home

Anyone who grew up in or around large families probably remembers a particular kind of evening. Perhaps it was a birthday, or a family reunion, or a Christmas or New Years’ party, or a civic holiday.

Depending on the ethnicities of the families involved, there might have been trays of baked ziti and meatballs, or pierogies and pickled herring, or kielbasa and sauerkraut, or perhaps all of them and much more. These were the nights when the kids could eat as much dessert, or anything else, as they wanted, when the visitors and hosts agreed it was time to part ways before opening another bottle of wine.

I and other writers here often talk about the built environment, about things like zoning and street width and neighborhood design. But just as important are the individual buildings that make up those built environments. Construction and architecture are about more than aesthetics: we now know [1] that humans are wired at a very deep level to appreciate various elements of traditional architecture and planning [2]. Traditional middle-class homes promote those fun-filled evenings through their design. Basements, attics, nooks, and little mazes of rooms are inseparable from things like kids hiding out, trying to make their parents forget the night is over.

Many modern homes, like everything else in our tech-ified, ultra-efficient era, are stylish but not cozy, functional but not warm. There are no inconvenient nooks and crannies, no janky closets under staircases, no half-rooms above the garage, no dark, mysterious basements that could be caves or tunnels in a child’s imagination. Increasingly there is just an “open concept” floor plan [3], the domestic equivalent of the vaguely authoritarian open-plan office. One article notes [4], “Prior to the last 25 years, an ‘open floor plan’ meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls.”

It can be challenging in a traditional house to have a quiet dinner, watch television, and segregate the children during a family gathering or party, let alone in a house with an open-floor plan. But maybe it’s less of a problem than it should be; my mother used to point out that family size inversely correlates with average square footage—smaller and smaller families live in larger and larger homes. There is something profoundly lonely and consumeristic about that.

Then there are the “smart” devices, which too often require an inordinate amount of intelligence to actually operate. They can read us our shopping lists and schedule our laundry and tell us when someone is approaching the front door. Because they can be controlled remotely, they also permanently lodge themselves in our brains, one extra thing to check while fidgeting awkwardly with our phones. What these devices provide in convenience they take away in focus.

If a living space does not allow for a few moments of comfortable solitude, it cannot really be called a home. There are, one suspects, not very many homes being built in America today. It is highly unlikely that most of the recent housing—whether the soulless, gaping McMansions that evoke international hotel lobbies, or the condo complexes with pastel facades and fake balconies, or the industrial-chic urban row houses—will ever age gracefully or be able to provide that enchanting mix of wonder and comfort that makes a place a home for a child.

What does the lack of these spaces do to children’s creativity? Does it blunt their minds? Perhaps we are too busy with our daily grinds to remember what it is like to be a child in a house. Having people over, especially entire families, is a way to recapture a little bit of that feeling, to see one’s home from the perspective of a guest, if only a little bit for a little while. It’s a useful exercise.


Among my most pleasant childhood memories are “rosary nights”: a group of us homeschooling Catholic families would meet at someone’s house every 13th of the month (it had something to do with Fatima), and pray one, sometimes three, rosaries. Occasionally we would display a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which came in an equally large bag and which one family’s cat liked to treat as an enclosed bed. When the praying was over, we would retire to the kitchen for cakes and desserts. The kids would eat quickly and fit in as much unsupervised playtime as we could—even more exciting if we were in an unfamiliar house—before it was time to go home.

In our own way, we were a part of that vast but receding web of private, communal associations that we call “civil society” or “intermediating institutions,” the maintenance of which is the core of conservatism, and perhaps of society itself.

What all of this has to do with housing and urbanism is that in my child’s mind, the pleasantness of the houses and the company of friends and the comfort of the Faith were inseparable. I’m not sure my child’s mind was wrong. Perhaps I am merely elevating the bourgeois lifestyle or indulging in nostalgia. But what’s really so bad about the bourgeois lifestyle (or its relative, the much-reviled “middle-class morality”?). America is poorer for its vanishing communal middle between the individual and the state, for its vanishing blue-chip firms and lifelong occupations, for its burgeoning economic inequality and insecurity.

I can’t change the housing industry or the economy. I can only be thankful for the janky closets in my home, for the quirky rosary club, for the endless trays of baked ziti during the holidays. But they are not the point, ultimately—the point is that those memories modeled for me what a home and a family are. The family is biological, but it is also a web of inherited and learned behaviors. Those seemingly trite bits of childhood nostalgia can serve as little models, as little guideposts. Our families are one piece of making that happen. Our physical houses and built environments may be no less important.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [5].

32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "When a House Was a Home"

#1 Comment By I Don’t Matter On August 23, 2018 @ 10:04 pm

Is it the “built environments” or childhood memories? Can a family make baked ziti in an open-plan kitchen, or will they taste funny? You can’t pray two rosaries in a large living room with floor-to-ceiling windows?

What is the point you’re trying to convey? Don’t hang up, it’s a serious question!

#2 Comment By Anne (the other one) On August 23, 2018 @ 10:06 pm

My house has an open floor plan. I have mixed feelings about it. It is nice to have everyone in the same room while I cook dinner. OTOH, I hate viewing the messy pots and counters while I am eating dinner

Biggest change from my perspective is the number of televisions and computers. My children had to learn how to share a single TV. One computer too. Talk about learning negotiation skills.

Now, everyone watches TV in isolation. It makes the old days of a family sitting around a single TV, eating TV dinners in aluminum trays on flimsy tables seems touching.

#3 Comment By TomG On August 24, 2018 @ 8:21 am

I have to agree with the comments from “I Don’t Matter.” (BTW, you do matter). I don’t quite get the point. I think Addison is slipping into what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘memory as temptation to nostalgia.”

Certainly for the well off enough houses do get bigger as families have grown smaller, and too many people in this country make square footage part of their status symbol just as they do with their multiple SUV’s and three and four car garages. It’s pathetic. And this construction with all its upscale features has nothing to do with making a house a home. There is nothing wrong with an open floor plan. Turn off the TV while the family is cooking and eating together.

Adopting even the most simple ‘rule of life’ can help real family time whether living in good architecture or bad—large or small. My suggestions for a rule of life any one can do—cook together, garden together if you have even a little dirt, walk in a park, make music together, sit quietly and read together, express gratitude for the free gifts of creation, ponder humility—stopping selling pride as a virtue, consume less, turn the stupid-smart phones off. Repeat daily.

#4 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On August 24, 2018 @ 8:47 am

To all three of the first comments: take a look at this old TAC piece that says in part: “Good people can overcome bad urbanism. Bad people can certainly overwhelm good urbanism. But why should we not give as many people as will seek it the opportunity to live in communities built in accordance with the wisdom of the generations?”


There’s a reinforcing relationship between the formation of community and the form of the built environment. Many people believe the open floorplan makes houses a little less conducive to some good aspects of family life. That doesn’t mean they *prevent* it. But if we prioritized families and people over status symbol HGTV styling, we might be building differently.

#5 Comment By CAPT S On August 24, 2018 @ 9:14 am

I get it; understand your points and to a certain extent agree.

But if I were to emphasize and argue “home” as something our children desperately need, housing architecture is magnitudes of lesser importance than stable marriages and lingering meals around the dining table. My generation’ memories were formed primarily in ugly 1500 sf ranch houses, but they’re considered good memories because in addition to parents and sit-down meals, we could shoot our BB guns, work on cars in the driveway, or play wiffleball in the street, all without worrying about regulatory neighborhood nazis wetting themselves.

#6 Comment By Lert345 On August 24, 2018 @ 9:43 am

I live in the NY suburbs and new housing is never less than 2000 sq feet (plus huge basement). Many of these Garage Mahals are built on small lots where an older smaller house was torn down to make way for it. They have a cookie cutter look, apparently all generated by a template in the architectural software – same window styles, gable style, porches, etc. When completed, they stand surrounded by the smaller homes in the neighborhood, looking quite out of place and very ridiculous. Starting prices are about 550K and they sell quickly.

There is just no profit in building smaller more affordable homes.

#7 Comment By I Don’t Matter On August 24, 2018 @ 10:00 am

Addison, appreciate your engagement with the comments.
I see the issue now: you think the “wisdom of generations” is one “thing”, and it’s a good thing. But this is not the case. The wisdom of generations as seen in 1700’s was to make houses with tiny windows (visit Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth, NH when you have a chance). There was nothing “wise” about it – the glass was expensive. You see where this is going.
Your fundamental blindness here is not that you dislike modern homes (nothing’s wrong with that), but that you cannot see that there are people who actually like them, and it has nothing to do with “status symbol HGTV styling”. I live in a modern (as in, half-a-century old – is this a “wisdom of generations now”?) house with huge glass walls in the open living room overlooking a garden (think your Eichler). Do you know how heartbreakingly beautiful this setup is? Have you ever had a ‘possum come up to your window to watch a movie with you, because the glass is within a few inches of the ground, and we don’t close the shades? Do you think this house is any less of a home to my family? What does this have to do with “status”?

TomG: the emphasis is on “I”. This is simple: words on the page matter. Who I am doesn’t. Comes from, e.g., posting something that people disagree with, and their immediate reaction being to try to guess who I am (“young bitter architect” – ha!) in order to dismiss what I say. That’s when referring to my screen name is useful.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On August 24, 2018 @ 10:05 am

I used to enjoy watching home remodel shows but they’ve mostly become cookie cutter efforts.
The very first thing they do is to knock out every possible wall, install an oversized kitchen “island” & stone countertops. Over & over again.
I understand that’s what the market is asking for but in a dozen years or so all these homes will look dated circa the 20 teens & will be slated for remodeling once again.
The saddest part is when older homes suffer remodeling demolition that destroys their architectural or historic integrity to suit current fads.

#9 Comment By mrscracker On August 24, 2018 @ 10:13 am

“Among my most pleasant childhood memories are “rosary nights”: a group of us homeschooling Catholic families would meet at someone’s house every 13th of the month (it had something to do with Fatima), and pray one, sometimes three, rosaries.”
That’s a lovely memory. Thank you for sharing it.
One of our local parishes has a “traveling” statue of Our Lady of Fatima that families can host in their home. I think they take turns monthly.

A priest we know does something similar in one of the largely Hispanic trailer parks. He leads the Rosary in the home which is hosting Our Lady’s statue. Father said enormous crowds of people pray with him, more than they can stuff into the trailers.

#10 Comment By Slugger On August 24, 2018 @ 10:58 am

I think the second to last paragraph is the key. Good times, good feelings, and family solidarity are not a product of architecture; the architecture of that time is called “quaint” out of charity. Family solidarity comes from social stability. When people have more and more at will employment, when corporations move plants and headquarters at any time to anywhere on earth to improve their bottom line, when pensions are replaced by 401ks, then dads and uncles are spread all over the country and Sunday dinners at Mama’s house disappear and Ragu becomes a brand name.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 24, 2018 @ 11:02 am

Maybe it’s just me. But I found an article about traditional family home life hard to take seriously with an image of two men and a small child as the center piece,

It was seriously distracting and no reference to its content juxtaposed by the article itself — annoying. Almost as annoying and rude as the inappropriate grilling at the orthopedic surgeons office about who my housemate was in relation to me.

Laugh for the first time, I didn’t care to explain it despite the consequences. That photo is just as pout of sync to traditional family discussed.

I took 24 hours to consider it.

#12 Comment By woke On August 24, 2018 @ 11:33 am

I absolutely detest open floor plans.

#13 Comment By mrscracker On August 24, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

I Don’t Matter says:
“Have you ever had a ‘possum come up to your window to watch a movie with you, because the glass is within a few inches of the ground, and we don’t close the shades?”
No, but I’ve had other less pleasant encounters with possums.

We had couple Thanksgiving turkeys who would perch on the flower planters next to the kitchen door & peer through the window while we ate meals. I’m not sure what their intentions were but they’re smarter than folks give them credit for.

#14 Comment By JonF On August 24, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

Re: Garage Mahals

I love that term! I’m going to steal it for future use.

#15 Comment By Dan Green On August 24, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

I always will remember the home I grew up in and my parents stayed in. Over 50 years. I owned some 7 homes when I became an adult. I think much of how homes have evolved is all to do with fads.Today the big deal is 100K kitchens a counter to eat at connected to a family room.

#16 Comment By Ann-Louise Beaumont On August 24, 2018 @ 9:24 pm

I think that we have lost the art of visiting. People once connected by visiting friends and relations in their homes. Sometimes visiting meant spending days in the homes of friends and relations. Spending time in the presence of other human beings has been eliminated in favour of TV and artificial internet connections.

#17 Comment By Eric On August 24, 2018 @ 10:16 pm

I wish the author had compared his observations to, say, the “Not So Big House” school of thought, which — as I recall it from a bit of reading, years ago — prized the psychologically-valuable nooks, crannies, and get-away spaces, while striving to achieve openness on the whole.

#18 Comment By Jen On August 24, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

This article feels like unwarranted 1950s nostalgia.

I know plenty of families with big houses and open floor plans who are constantly having potlucks, dinner parties, football watch parties, etc, with the kids involved. In my recollection from the 1970s, children were to be “seen and not heard,” and when people came over I had to go to the creepy, dark basement or my tiny bedroom and play alone.

Not everything in modern society is bad.

#19 Comment By Ken T On August 24, 2018 @ 11:51 pm

I don’t necessarily disagree with your opinions regarding modern architectural design. But I will just point out that as someone who grew up in the 50’s, I have none of those memories you so cherish. Why? Because “having people over” was something my family simply Did Not Do. As Slugger says above, Good times, good feelings, and family solidarity are not a product of architecture. They are a product of the family. Functional families will be functional regardless of the architecture; likewise dysfunctional families will be dysfunctional. So go ahead and make your case for why you prefer older designs, but please don’t try to claim any superior moral value to them.

#20 Comment By Jon On August 25, 2018 @ 10:19 am

Memory casts a nostalgic mist over the distant past even in some cases when home life was shattered by war and unrest. My father reminisced about his early childhood. It was a magical time. The miller had made for my father a zip gun which he fired during a solemn holiday. His mother embarrassed by an unexpected blast from his makeshift weapon searched is caftan and upon finding it took it away.

And yet she had high hopes for him that he would one day grow up and become a member of the clergy or an engineer. Those were the days when she cooked the Sabbath stew on a slow cooking fire outdoors for the guests she invited. When prospects were poor for having guests sup at her house, she went onto the crossroads in search managing to find and bring home wayfarers. One such guest was a thief who, proud of his profession, demonstrated his skill that by a sleight of hand snatched away their silver candle holder which he promptly returned.

One night she alone confronted the village elder catching hims red handed in stealing from her livestock. Embarrassed, he pleaded with her for mercy and for keeping the affair private. She complied with his entreaties. His unofficial village office of town elder remained intact and untainted.

She was a pious woman from a deeply religious family; her brother, an itinerant scholar but an impoverished pushcart merchant, visited her home and would wonder off into the nearby woods talking with God.

But then she died. The doctors could do little and watched as her cancer metastasized. As a young boy, my father did not realize the immensity of his loss and the desolate future that awaited him. The charm of childhood had ceased on the day of her funeral where all of the village wept over her passing. And home life although one of poverty crumbled. At the moment her coffin was lowered into the grave, he became a manchild.

#21 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On August 25, 2018 @ 11:38 am

Interesting comments here. Lots of people seem to be taking an extreme individual agency view, implicitly claiming that architecture and urban design have no relation to human behavior. Neither determines the other of course, but it seems obvious that they will influence each other. Remember what Churchill said: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” I think there’s something to that, even if we disagree over the degree of influence.

Also a good piece in this vein from TAC: [7]

#22 Comment By Anne (the other one) On August 25, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

Addison, I get it.

Women (or whoever cooks), don’t want to be cooped up in enclosed kitchens. It is isolating, especially when guests are in the living or dining room.

Second, when women were cooped up in kitchens, it made it harder to watch children. Toddlers were place in playpens.

With open floor plans, woman’s place isn’t just in the kitchen.
Guests are more likely to remain by the kitchen island or connected dining area. Less isolation and missing conversation and jokes.

Mothers can keep an eye on toddlers without using a playpen. The downside is as children age, too much togetherness can be too much. There a fine line between being attentive and a helicopter parent. No nooks for children to hide in.

My problem is who wants to eat dinner in the same room with the dirty stove and sink? I tend to cut my dinner short to start cleaning. However, I’m probably one the last people to cook seven days a week. Most families order in which negates the need for an open floor plan.

#23 Comment By mrscracker On August 25, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

I grew up with the philosophy that children should be seen but not heard too,but I think it’s often misunderstood.
Children need to respect adult conversations and adult space. Not constantly interrupt them. It’s about respect and boundaries.
Being “seen” implies not being exiled from the table or family activities. So, that’s a good thing.
You can take anything too far but I think there’s some wisdom in that adage.
Parents who fail to set boundaries or enforce rules of courtesy for their children can come to resent them and ultimately spend less time around them.

#24 Comment By There and Then On August 25, 2018 @ 7:18 pm

This article seems ridiculous to me. If you’re upset about modern home design buy an old house. There are many for sale in my community.

#25 Comment By Sara On August 25, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

It wasn’t enough to tell us what sort of hotel room we should prefer, now you want to tell us what sort of house is superior? These things are personal choices, preferences, NOT moral choices. You can enjoy memories of your own childhood home and share them but do have to then hold up whatever was YOURS as the ultimate in goodness and morality? I remember my childhood quite fondly as do my children but we grew up in very different houses and neighborhoods. You need to learn to be happy with your own choices and to quit judging everyone else who chooses differently or was simply raised in a different type of home. Unbelievable.

#26 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On August 26, 2018 @ 4:29 am


This article really doesn’t give me real impression of what it is that makes older style homes better to you, just that you don’t like open floor plans and thus prefer the opposite. Your nostalgic description just seems to be a product of culture with no real connection to how that is a product of the architecture in your description. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a house old or new that doesn’t have nooks for the children to go off to and get into mischief.

I also vastly prefer older homes, though a big part of that is their individuality whereas modern homes all seem mostly the same. I do like open kitchens/dining rooms (don’t put any TVs or computers in them for God’s sake though!) because I am the one who cooks and I don’t like being isolated from my guests or my children as I do so.

Anne (the other one) says:
My problem is who wants to eat dinner in the same room with the dirty stove and sink? I tend to cut my dinner short to start cleaning.

Can’t you just take a seat facing away from the dirty dishes? Maybe it’s just because I’m a guy or a regional cultural thing, but I don’t care if anybody sees my dirty dishes and I am never bothered by eating in the presence of other peoples dirty dishes. When I was a kid everybody pitched in to help clean up after a meal including guests and children pretty much everywhere we had social gatherings. I find it really awkward at my in-laws to be shooed away from the kitchen during cleanup to watch TV with the other guys while all the ladies wash dishes. Perhaps this is a class thing? I come from more of a lower middle class Catholic midwestern family and they are more upper middle class midwestern WASPs.

#27 Comment By Anne (the other one) On August 26, 2018 @ 10:50 am

@mrscracker. “Children need to respect adult conversations and adult space.”

Exactly! I never participated in adult conversations when my parents entertained friends. Parents are less authoritarian than fifty years ago. Open floor plans reflects this.

Open floor plans are also reflective of our country’s new (or renewed) interest in cooking. While Julia Child revolutionize American cooking, her kitchen stage looked remarkably like a regular home kitchen. Whereas, the food network shows have this open floor plan which is the norm.

#28 Comment By mrscracker On August 27, 2018 @ 10:17 am

Thomas Hobbes: “Can’t you just take a seat facing away from the dirty dishes?”
I can’t personally, but my mother, God rest her soul, had a solution. She would tell us to “Shanty Irish” (cover) the dishes with a clean tea towel. I don’t know if that was a common expression for folks of Irish ancestry or not, but that’s how she hid the dirty dishes from sight.

#29 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On August 27, 2018 @ 3:35 pm


I will have to ask the Irish wing of my family if they’ve ever heard of that. They all eat at kitchen tables right next to the dirty dishes now. I’m curious how exactly they ate when there were 7 kids in the house plus guests (I never saw the inside of the old house).

#30 Comment By Anne (the other one) On August 27, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

I don’t face the dishes. Must be a gal thing or OCD because I clean up as soon as possible. My sister does too so maybe it is a family trait.

For company, I bbq outside or prepare something the day before which can be popped into the oven.

Cooks on the Food Network have a whole staff who clean up during commercial breaks. If only I . . .

#31 Comment By mrscracker On August 27, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

Thomas Hobbes,
We had eight children and if guests showed up, somebody would have to sit on a metal lard can at the table because there were only so many chairs. (Of course guests got the chairs.)

#32 Comment By Anne (the other one) On September 4, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

Addison, you were ahead of your time. Another believer in the failures of open designs:

This plan proves the open kitchen should die