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Basement houses

To be honest, when we had basement houses, they used to make me look away.

As a girl coming from a part of the country that had no basements, I thought these roof-on-a-foundation homes reminded me too much of those legless men on skateboards in Tijuana. Interesting, really interesting. But you don’t want to gawk.

So I didn’t look close. And I didn’t take pictures. And I so far haven’t found anybody else who did. And now the bad news for the curious is this: They are all now history in Fort Collins. The last 3 fulfilled their destinies and became regular houses in the past 5 years.

Here’s the only local picture I could find. I’m making it big because it’s hard to see:

Don’t let the grainy photo deceive you. This isn’t a quaint pre-70s A frame or some elaborate farm outbuilding. Rather, it’s really a regular roof capping a concrete cellar where people live. Note the steps leading to the attic door under the eaves. The full-size door appears to send you to the right, and then down.

Built in 1926, this model appraised for $1300 by 1977. And that was AFTER they added plumbing in 1960s.

That’s how it was. People built basement homes because they didn’t have money to build the whole thing at once. Called “Hope Houses,” these ultimate starter homes were meant to go full size, but only after YOU COULD AFFORD IT.

(See in the 1920s, interest-only mortgages, which worked, then as now, only so long as home values go up, were both available and popular. The resulting, and by now predictable, foreclosures then fueled the depression. But maybe the basement-house owner couldn’t get one. Maybe in the 20s banks required credit, reputation, or income. Or maybe the basement homeowner was old-fashioned and thought that kind of usury imprudent.)

A final bit of trivia about this house: When the owners built the first story in 2003, the city required them to remove the original kitchen. I suppose in order to prevent an illegal student duplex–a more enduring form of budget Fort Collins’ housing.

***

Update. Since I wrote this post, I feel compelled to look for basement houses in small towns when I travel. Here’s a great example of one I found ….

Basement house in Lusk, Wyoming. August 2008

Note: It took a lot of digging to find out only a little about these houses. So, I’m going to link you to what I could find on the web so far in case you want to see more:

Also, big thanks to Pat and Lesley at the local archives for helping with my dig! We have an incredible resource both in materials and in staff there.

20 comments to Basement houses

  • Jeffrey S. Haemer

    “Underground houses, sí. Basement houses, no”? When aren’t the times a-changin’?

    I have a friend who went to a lot of trouble to build an underground house in Iowa because it’s low-maintenance and energy-efficient. You don’t have to paint much of it, and the earth keeps its temperature buffered, so you need neither heating nor air-conditioning.

    I’d have thought light a problem, but he says that skylights do the trick. The typical lighting problem is too much light: Homeowners with the same worry I had, overdo it and put in too many skylights.

    If Fort Fun still had basement houses, perhaps they’d now cost extra, like little cars, and have all the hoity-toity cachet of riding the trolley, uh, light rail.

  • Noë

    There were basement houses everywhere when I was growing up, post WW II. I was always intrigued by them, but I never got to go in one. I always thought it was a swell idea to build as much as you can afford, then add on to it as you could afford more.

  • Elyse

    Wow, I’d never even heard of basement houses – fascinating. Awesome post and site, Cat!

  • Does this include the house on LaPorte? I had never seen anything like it before or since… basically a roof on the ground!

  • catfc

    When I got to town, I knew about three of them. The house on LaPorte (technically on McKinley), one on Vine near Shields (that’s the one in the picture), and one on a ranch property out on W. Vine, I think. After I wrote the post, several people said there were still basement houses and actually went driving around only to find out they were all built up. We even looked in Belleview. I’d love it if someone figured out I was wrong, and we still have some.

  • Kip W

    I’ve been living elsewhere since 1980, but there used to be a basement house across from Cunningham Corner on Horsetooth Road just east of Shields (if I’m not garbling it, and if “Cunningham Corner” means anything now — for years it was a farmhouse with a huge yellow barn, once occupied by Peter Passman, our VW mechanic).

  • catfc

    Hi Kip,

    Cunningham Farm? You mean the apartment/condo village of that name on Horsetooth and Shields? It even has a little road named Cunningham in there.

    I’m guessing that’s not quite how it was when your mechanic lived there.

  • Kip W

    The big wooden barn used to say “Cunningham Corner” on it. For years, we drove past it. When I worked at the comic shop in 1975-6, I got to know Peter, who lived in the farm house there. I visited him at the place once, and wasn’t surprised later to find that they tore the house down and kept the barn — at least for a while. Later on, my wife and I bought a VW square back, and Peter gave it a good checkout and put it in shape for us. A couple of weeks later (if that), a drunk ran a red light in Longmont and totalled the car.

    I picked cucumbers in a field just up Shields from that corner for part of a summer. They wanted the smaller ones, but we wanted to fill the buckets faster with the bigger ones.

    Nice of them to name things after the stuff they tear down to make them, isn’t it?

  • Melissa

    I moved here to Dickinson, ND and notices three or more. I was fascinated. I also thought about energy efficiency because it’s cold here alot and heating costs are high. I learned that mostly folks built them as that was all they could afford. I just visited a friend in Glen Ullen and was amazed how “filled” was his basement…old ex-kitchen, two bedrooms, full bathroom, and utility room! Now, it has a small stucco house on top too. I feel like a mole up here in ND because I enjoy basements and many many people have them. Cozy…another world!

  • catfc

    I get up to Bismarck every month or two. But I never saw any basement houses there. I’ll have to make the drive over to Dickinson to see.

  • Rhonda

    Hi Kip. Are you the Kip that went to Poudre and maybe Rocky Mtn and graduated in 74? I was there too. And my family drove past Cunningham Corners for years because we lived way out south on Shields. There was a “hippie commune” there for some years. The barn stood until about 1985 or so when they tore it down and put in those “town homes” and the apartments that are on the corner, exactly where the house and barn stood. I sure was sad to see that old barn go. I hoped they would keep it as a historical building. The Worthington farm surrounded that piece of property, but that too has all been built on. Oh well, time and “progress” marches on!

  • That’s me, Rhonda! Two years at Poudre, and one at RMHS, hanging out in the theater department. I remember you and your sister, who must have been a sophomore. I haven’t seen Rocky Mountain in a while, but last time I saw Poudre, it had been captured by a larger building.

    I was in town about a week ago, and I do believe we drove past your old house. Is there a sign out front with the family name on it? That may be what tipped me off. It’s all an enjoyable blur now.

  • Jesse

    Funny someone should mention Cunningham Corner. On my bike route to work, I came across a barn back in a neighborhood with a big Cunningham Corner sign on it. It’s off of Cedarwood Dr, near Bauder Elementary. Could it be they just moved the barn there?

  • I’m researching basement houses tonight…my grandparents had a basement house in Eastern Colorado…and it seemed the norm to me in the 50’s abd 60’s when I was growing up.. Today my adult niece who had not visited my home town…was surprised to learn about basement houses. It sent me on a mission to research something that I took for granted. Any leads for Eastern Colorado?

  • catfc

    What town in Eastern Colorado? Since Eastern Colorado is all small towns, my guess is there’s a fighting chance the basement house is still there. As property became more valuable in Fort Collins, especially the older neighborhoods, it just wasn’t feasible for anyone to keep a funky basement house.

  • I logged on to this “chapter” just to confirm that, of course, the basement house at LaPorte and McKinley would be mentioned but now I have to smile about the mention of Cunningham Corner in the “hippie commune” era. Not sure if it was ever a full fledged commune but it was fairly hippie.
    There was a band that lived there and adopted the name for their moniker. They were talented, well rehearsed and could harmonize like birds. Hippie birds I guess.

  • Niki

    Hello, I have a basement house myself, and i am having the hardest time refianceing it! I am so mad that we can not find someone to! I used to love my house but i am getting really frustrated, they said the only way we can get it refianced is if they find one in are area that they can compare it to , so do you have any idea what i can do to help me refiance. thank you!

  • catfc

    I wish I could help, Niki. I noticed in some of the web sites that finding comparables for basement houses was very difficult for assessors, but I didn’t know it prevented them from refinancing. If you do find answers, let us know.

  • Kevin Donnelly

    I was a founding member of the Cunningham Corner band and lived on the farm during the 1970’s. I have some rare photos of the Cunningham Corner barn if anyone is interested. Kevin

    [I contacted Kevin offline and turned his photos and story into its own post. http://lostfortcollins.com/2009/10/13/cunningham-corner-a-1970s-fort-collins-barn-band/
    –Cat]

  • Jennifer

    I’ve been looking online for pictures of basement houses to show people. Everyone thinks I’m lying when i tell them I lived in one as a kid in Kimball, NE