Michael Bierut | Essays

New House

Sarasota Drive, Parma, Ohio. Photo by Ronald Bierut.

In 1967, just after my tenth birthday, we moved from a cramped 1940s bungalow in an older Cleveland suburb to a brand new house in up-and-coming Parma, Ohio.

I'm not sure why I know exactly how much it cost, but I do. Was the figure — $29,900 — a constant subject of whispered discussion between my mom and dad in the months leading up to the move? It must have been. Like most young couples, they were on the verge of going over their heads, and it must have been scary. What I do remember was a sense of endless promise. Our house was new. All the houses on the street were new. The streets themselves were new. I had been walking the earth for a full decade, but that fall I felt I was finally assuming my birthright as an American. I was moving into a brand new house.

Until the postwar building boom, Parma was mostly farmland. In 1967, our street marked development's southernmost incursion; for as long as I lived there, uncharted wilderness began at the border of our backyard. It was fun to play in the woods, but better still were the vaguely illegal pleasures afforded by living in what would be, until my high school years, one big construction site, with new houses always under construction and new neighbors always moving in. We entertained ourselves by stealing wood to build clubhouses, jumping into basement excavations, staging massive wars with 2x4s and dirt clods, and — in one memorable incident — rolling a six-foot diameter wooden cable spool down a hill, "just to see what would happen," as I later tearfully confessed to my parents. (What happened was it gained speed, escaped everyone's control, and smashed into a neighbor's Ford Fairlane.)

In an expression of wishful thinking not atypical of northern Ohio, every street in our neighborhood was named after a town in Florida: Tamarack, Tamiami, Sarasota. The houses came in two models: ranch and split level. We lived in a split level. The house to our left was a ranch. The house to our right was another split level. It was identical to ours. The house across the street was a split level too, but with the floor plans reversed. Going in that house was always a disorienting, Bizarro World experience. Differentiating each house was its dominant architectural feature: the decorative element on the garage door. We had a star; our neighbors had moons, windows, abstract shapes. Picking this element must have been a moment of truth for the new homeowners, an opportunity to make a "statement," but I don't remember anyone ever ascribing any significance to these insignia. Like the whole neighborhood, they just seemed to appear overnight.

Everyone on our street lived in what would later be called a snout house, that garage-centric building type so reviled today that certain municipalities have outlawed them. My mom didn't care much about urban planning principles; she liked being able to get the groceries from her car to the kitchen without braving the Cleveland winter. It just seemed modern, like the way our dinette area was three steps up from our wood-panelled den, the television fully watchable over the decorative wrought-iron railing. (During breakfast at least: it was off at dinnertime.)

I lived in that house for the next eight years. Today that doesn't seem that long — as I write, I've been working on a single signage project nearly that long, I'm sorry to say — but by the time I left for college, that house had been my whole life. I concocted homemade gunpowder at a chemistry set in the basement, fought with my dad about haircuts on the stairs, read Catcher in the Rye on the floor of my bedroom, and listened to the White Album on the big stereo console in the living room. More than anything else, I remember that first time we walked through it in 1967. It never looked better than when it was completely new and completely empty.

It will be empty again soon enough. My brothers left for college three years after I did. Four years later my dad died of a heart attack in that panelled den on my thirtieth birthday. He had just finished cutting the grass; a golf game was on the television. My mom lived there alone for the next twenty years. Finally, this fall it became too much, and she moved to a condo near my brother Don.

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards has a new book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives. In it, sixty Americans, including Isabel Allende, Mario Batali, John Mellencamp, and Maya Lin, talk about their childhood homes. There are pictures. I note with some relief that our house is hardly the most unpicturesque. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg's house in Scottsdale is quintessentially suburban; Jamie-Lynn Sigler, better-known as tv's mob heiress Meadow Soprano, hails from a snout house that is absolutely textbook. The idea of the humble beginning clearly has staying power in our national mythology.

In his introduction, Edwards describes home as "the place that helps to define how we see ourselves and how we choose to make our way in the world." I became a designer, and at first glance that house on Sarasota Drive doesn't seem to have many design lessons to impart. But somewhere behind that suburban facade is the way it was forty years ago: full of promise, and unblemished by time, disappointment or mortality. Maybe design is nothing more than a way to keep making everything new again.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [28]

Great post! Right behind where I currently live a few weeks ago was a wooded area followed by a corn field. The trees and the corn field are gone. The land now looks pretty sad but the sign marking the new construction site claims "beautiful homes starting at..." So perhaps this will create new memories for other 10 year olds as they move in to the new homes opening this coming spring.

Michael, I think design is nothing more than rearranging the furniture and slapping a fresh coat of paint... unless the entire house needs to come down.

Samuel E. Vazquez

I hated my house and the lack of "home" that it provided. I hated everything about it - the fights, the locks, the dead lawn, the uneven windows, the cracked paint, all the flaws that only I would blame my childhood on. I still hate it to this day. But for some reason, this story has inspired me to want to go photograph it, and it kind of makes me feel guilty for ever having those feelings.

I lived in my childhood home for about 15 years. I can honestly say that my memories of that house in northeastern N.J. are all good ones.

I can't say that the design of it really made a huge impression, but watching my mother and sister passionately clean and my father paint, wallpaper, and polish better than anyone, did leave within me a desire to always do better than the best I can.

Nothing feels more like home than your childhood home. I miss that feeling of comfort and carelessness. It broke my heart to watch my parents sell it. Although, now, it has wonderful owners who updated it. And it still sits proudly on the highest peak in the county.

I spent the first 16 years of my life in a row house in a Queens neighborhood close to the bridge (59th Street). I spent just about every moment of my teenage awareness (say 12-16?) rejecting everything about the house, block, neighborhood and city. The dirt. The dust. The aged. The weathered broken down decayed city. I rejected EVERY MOLECULE! My dislike of all things city consumed me. I ran from it like it was a living thing, chasing me.

Eventually, by my early 20s I became a graphic designer...E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G about my work is weathered, decayed and 'dirty'.

The very characteristics I rejected has permeated most of my professional output.

HOW THE?! I don't get it and only recently 'noticed' It was there. It stared me in the face, but i never saw it. It was only after being pointed out by an audience member at a recent speaking engagement.

I still am not sure of the psychological meaning behind all of this...but it's fascinating...

This post brought back memories. Seems we grew up similarly:

We moved into our new house in Lyndhurst, Ohio a little before I turned 10. But yeah, exploring the woods (awesome for hide and go seek at night!), climbing huge dirt piles in front of houses being built, exploring the giant holes dug out, et all was a blast when I was a young buck. We also had vines. That's right, VINES that you could swing on and climb. Oh boy was that fun. Haha
Kevin Sweeney

thanks for the great post. i grew up in a similar neighborhood in kent, washington, outside of seattle, and im pretty sure that the model i grew up in is very close to yours, except what you call the den was called the 'family room', and it was six steps instead of three to the kitchen.

at 8, the forest down the street seemed like a limitless kingdom in which we played out many of the childhood games and fantasies you describe above. by 14, it became the construction site we stole wood from to build half-pipes. and by 16, i got a driver's license, home seemed like a prison, and i could only think of driving off to seattle whenever i could in order to be free.

when i left and went to college, it was with the hope of escaping forever the banality and conformity of that form of living. but looking back, i realize that it was an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood that had its share of divorce, crime, vandalism, skinhead, and drug problems. tv shows like 'the sopranos' and 'six feet under' show how such mediocre settings can evoke pathos, reversing the stereotype that suburbia is empty of experience and stories. and whenever i visit my parents, who moved to a much nicer neighborhood a while ago now, i make it a point to drive by the old house. im always surprised by the sentiment it conjures up in me.

Great article. Apparently, I lived just down the street from your old home, on Stary Dr. I still remember stories my grandfather told me about walking through the farms and fields that used to be Parma to go ice skating.

I have to agree, there is something about an empty home, whether it is just built, and everything is sparkling and new, or it is an older home, and everything is just new to you. Something of a promise, like a blank piece of paper or an empty glass, that you get to fill with your own memories. I have not lived in that house for at least 10 years now, but when I go back I can still remember all of the good (and bad) times that happened there, and while it may not be picturesque, it is at least comfortable.

Brian Petro

As a designer, I'm inclined to believe that the buildings that we occupy can have a profound influence on us...something of the order of Winston Churchill's "We shape our buildings, whereupon they shape us" quote.

After reading this post, and reflecting on my own childhood home (also a split level surrounded by other split level and single level ranch homes), however, I really have to question the degree of influence that a house design can have. The house and the neighborhood that I grew up in was clean, safe, and entirely banal. (Then again, some people would say that's a good description of me.)

This is hardly a profound thought, but perhaps the way in which the shell of a home is formed is much less important than what happens within it.
Daniel Green

Growing up in a military family meant experiencing a new home every 3 years or so, which for me had its pros and cons. At the time it sucked, but looking back, I'm grateful for the variety of experiences it gave me. My fondest memories, however, are of the homes of my grandparents. Visiting these houses a couple of times a year made them more that much more special and memorable somehow.

They were modest homes, but full of quirks like the phone in the bathroom of the house in Massachusetts or the pigeon coop and boathouse at the lake house in New Hampshire. To this day, the smell of pigeon poop brings back vivid memories!
Doug F

Thanks Michael, this is a great post. I remember endless evenings exploring the neighborhood addition that would soon grow from the empty gravel pit around the corner from us. And the woods behind the house, that became both a source of eery mystery on fall nights, and escape in the summer under the summac groves.

I don't know to what degree any of these things manifests itself in my design work, and maybe it doesn't at all. It is certainly nice to know though, that in spite of the fancy, high-rise offices and designer gear, at some level we are still those kids having fun discovering new paths through the woods.
Gordon Lee

My folks new house was 1969, also $29,000. They had managed to save $100 and borrowed $500 from the grandparents. It was enough for a mortgage in those days. The housing development was on a former cornfield and the first couple of years the crows kept coming back and would sit on the telephone wires and complain for hours on end. It was the first time I got to pick out a color for my bedroom — a dusty butterscotch. It was the first time I had my own bedroom!

My mother still lives in the house and that's where the wife and I are going for Thanksgiving. I'm so happy I don't live there anymore. Every time I go back all I can think about it how to remodel the place.
George Thompson

Wow. Your house embodies and appeals to every delicious suburban, family, and motherly instinct in me. Not to mention my deep and lasting love of the late 60's and early 70's. I'm a little in love with that style.

In other iconic Cleveland house news.
Josh B

Houses start off full of fresh promises and potential, but are soon full of the prosaic - Until they are old enough to be quaint. The house I spent my childhood in was an big old wooden one in a remote mining town. It was called the "Old Butler House" long after the Butlers had departed. The biggest room was the kitchen and that was dominated by the wood burning stove. It's charming, thinking back to that stove, but no one missed the chore of hauling in arm loads of wood when it was replaced by a propane stove.

I think I may remember it as fondly as I do because we packed up and moved to Calgary when I was still too young to have been bored by the grotty isolation of the place.

Googling my home town turns up a PDF of a walking tour which that house is part of. It's Probably still called the "Butler House" by the locals.

I hated Calgary and the dreary suburb we moved to... It was different (The name was Wildwood, and that alone conjures up images of early sixties cooky-cutter homes in neat rows on curvey streets with identical cars in the freshly paved driveways) and and I was a little older.
Russell McGorman

My parents mortgage payment was $150 a month. When me and my wife bought a mini van my Dad exclaimed when I told him the price "That is how much we bought our home for."

Von Glitschka

I'm in a tiny Montana village in a 4 room house built in the Thirties as one of a pair with another next door. This is not a childhood house, unless you count second childhoods -- this is my retirement house, bought in 1999 with $30,000 -- my share of my mother's estate. I like little old houses like this best and thought long and hard where to acquire one. This is where the best parts of my adult life happened, next to the Blackfeet reservation in sight of the Rockies. I would rather have been out in the country, but I'm a little too old to be there alone.

I grew up in Portland, OR, where snout houses are forbidden because people step from car to inside and back to car without ever forming neighborhoods. The watering is automatic, the lawn is done by someone else, the car is washed by a drive-through machine. Like that Ray Bradbury story about a house that manages itself and goes serenely on after everyone dies.

After several deaths by carbon monoxide in bedrooms over the snout house's garages, I swore I'd never live in a house with an attached garage. In order to keep my promise, I use this house's attached garage for a studio. Undesigned.

Prairie Mary

Having lived in several different houses/apartments during my childhood and adolescence I have no place I can really call "home." Even though all the different places were in the same general area, and I never had to change schools other than the normal transition from elementary to high school, lacking a single physical place makes me feel rather rootless at times.

At 16 I moved from a small town in south Dakota to a smaller town in Nebraska. I spent 4 months in Nebraska with my sister and her husband and 2 kids. My nephew was 3 years younger then I and caused us mischif beign so close in age. So by the time school arrived I was back to the small town in SD. We were consolidated with 4 other towns and more the less I was outcast. That lasted a year and a half. By November of 97 I was moving to Minnesota to live with my brother. In yet another small farm town. Outcast again. First week I was attacked 2 times by older kids. Cheap cracks. I moved back to SD at the end of school and back again for school the following year. After graduation I moved back to SD and moved 3 times with in the same small town. By this time I have to get a storage shed to start storing extra sh*t that I should of thrown away.
I then move to NE again. This time a larger more city like. A female that I know moves their with me. Life is good. 1 year 5 months 8 days. Tired of picking up her phone bill calls to mom. So I kick her out and deside to move back to SD but to a city not a town. 2 months and life is good. Girl Friend moves back in with me. 4 months girl friend is crazy and back home to mommy. Then Girlfriend ends up preg. I stand up and be a man. Move back girlfriends home town. Rent an apartment on the noises spot in town for to long. Move to a small as a shoebox house with a caving in basement for a year rent another small house for 3 months and then buy a 3 bed house in town and have another kid. Life is good but I still have a Rental shed in NE that I haven't been to in 2 years I have 5 months and my rent will be do for it. I almost didn't pay it last time. What will they do? Take my junk that I don't need anyway.

I grew up as a military brat, moving from location to location roughly every three years. I, too, don't have a place that I really call home. My home is my apartment and my other home is wherever my parents live. I sometimes find myself jealous of the non-military kids because they, like you, have a home where they know everyone and can recall memories of it. But as you said, the "home" plays a great deal in who we are and what we've become. After reading this I can say that I became a designer because I was rebounding against the change: I wanted to make things steady, persistent, or controlled. I have my "style" that is all those things, which I place into a design. Great read!

Great post. I've given up on 'home' and settled for something that's basically everywhere. If that makes sense... The childhood home, and not just A childhood home but THE childhood home... that's the stuff. Mine was one I'll never forget.
Eric Olson

Amrap rules! Michael you should remember the Ghoul and Ghoulardi...I lived in Shaker in the 70's good times. What we watched on TV was just as important as where we watched.
Great stuff...
Max Nelson

Hi, great article. this is my first comment as the timing is right as im renovating a 'snout house'.

I recently bought the snout house I spent my high school years in. The house remained as a rental after my family grew up. Its strange, there are a lot of ghosts in the house, but I like it. It's like karma.

I've lived in them all... just a few years before purchasing from my family, I was living in a trendy San Francisco live/work. I learned my inspiration did not come from the area I lived in or the people who live in proximity to me. My imagination, friends and family (and square footage) do a better job. So I had no beef moving to the suburban sprawl into a house of which 600 other houses look the same.

I call "BS" on those who think that there's no neighborhood because of it. It's not the garage, its the people who live in the neighborhood. I know and love my neighbors. Josie who plants trees and flowers all over the neighborhood, Mr Klein who taught me how to raise a polite big dog, Joe next door who recently passed on. I could write for days about my neighbors. For those who think these neighborhoods are stale and no one is social, maybe those people aren't getting out enough themselves.

New developments with all their restrictions have the potential to be just as bad, and sometimes can be worse. Over-reactive Homeowners' associations anyone? ok, so no garage, AND only 4 shades of tan you can paint your house (after request form and fee is submitted), use only these plants, no window hangings, curtains must be white, etc etc, but hey, now we have a neighborhood thats cooler than that garage neighborhood! (?)

One thing that wasn't mentioned about the tri-level garage-fronted home is how nice they can be made on the inside. A little renovation goes a long way in these houses. The floor plans are so open downstairs in some that the whole house can be viewed from one point--something parents of small kids love to have. A kid can have a bedroom bigger than 8x8 feet. And that's the reason these houses are popular--they are easy for people to have families and live in.

I grew up in a family of six. We lived in suburban Ft. Lauderdale, and our house was always messy. Clothes and towels and toys and books and shoes, scattered all over the floor. Always on the floor.

Years later, in my Chicago apartment, I make an active, conscious effort to be neat. I am constantly picking up my stuff. But it doesn't come naturally. I sometimes feel like I am fighting the inevitable inside me.

This notion crystallized when, over a long weekend, I took my socks off and left them on the floor in the hallway. Amazingly, my apartment suddenly felt a lot more like home.

Childhood associations are really powerful. I had no idea I was longing for a little mess.
Sara Cantor


I'm in the middle of writing my Research Dissertation for my Graphic Design degree in Brighton, UK.

Because of my fathers job, we moved around a lot as a family while I was growing up. In total, before leaving home four years ago I had lived in 15 different family homes.

It seems that my life has been split into sections that are ruled by where I was at a particular stage in my life. Certain childhood memories are owned by the house we were living in at the time.

Earlier on this year I had an urge to find out more about where I used to live. I wondered what my old homes may look like now, and what my memories meant to me compared to what one of my homes may hold these days.

I sent out a letter with a disposable camera to each of my old homes and asked the present occupier to provide me with any kind of information telling me something about the place I used to live.

So far, I have had 6 out of 15 returned to me. Interestingly, it's been the houses that I don't remember hardly anything from that have given me detailed reports of the house and the village/town where it is.

I haven't begun to conclude my research yet, but I am starting to learn a lot about my surroundings as a child and wonder how much the family home has influenced who I am now, and how I got here.

I'm also no sure to what degree any of this manifests itself in my design work, but I know it does and I'm interested in looking into how much!


If home is "the place that helps to define how we see ourselves and how we choose to make our way in the world" what does that say about those who are forced to live without such essentials-the homeless, street children, those renting in dangerously neglected accomodation, the favelas and shanty towns? How do those identites "...define how we see ourselves and how we choose to make our way in the world"?
Marcus McCallion

For me, it is not so much the actual house and neighborhood that is so essential. As you mention in your post, the experience of moving into a "modern" home, and the promise of the "new" can be quite influential. This goes especially for the suburban experience, where the structure of a brand new house has a presence that is larger than itself. It's structure is similar to many other suburban houses, and therefore it alone becomes emblematic of an institution of cultural newness, the "American Dream," and the promise that we (Americans) will be given everything we need to fulfill our personal goals.

In my opinion, and I think this may also be reflective in your post, Mr. Bierut, it is not the physical attributes of our childhood house we are trying to recreate in our art. It is the participation in something both new and larger than ourselves.

As we get older (though I am still youngÑgot much to learn), those houses and institutions lose their original meaning, just like the curtain gets pulled on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We can't always depend on their promises. We have to take an active role and engage ourselves in the creation of the new and the grand. You might not be building an actual suburban community in Pleasantville. But if you succeed in your artÑif you spark the excitement and inspire the imaginations of othersÑyou are building and living in a community that shares more than modern dishwashers.

I'm grateful to you for a story of humble beginnings. So many people in the public eye seem to be from wealthy, connected parents that it sometimes gets disheartening, as if there is no opportunity for those who are born to parents of lesser means. I hate to be a classist, but I can't help but root for the people that grew up in the snout houses and houses like them.

Thank you for your post. We just sold our family house of 29 years today. Different part of the country, different experience, but yet very familiar story.

My parents decided the house and the land surrounding it had become too much of a continual project and have decided on a condo in Michigan near my sister. I am happy for them. The condo looks and functions like a house, detached, and having it's own plot of land. The key selling feature is that it comes with a maintenance contract.

Your story is timely as my family enters a new era. Unlike your story of living on a street with similar homes, I am in the process of remembering and preserving childhood memories of a home in a uniquely designed and built house out in the woods as I prepare for future of trips out to Michigan to visit my folks on Monopoly Lane. Actually, that would that old game design for Monopoly. The new game has unique houses, all magnificant sounding storybook places to live.

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