In the summer of 2003, I attended a viewing party celebrating the premiere of The O.C. at my friend Diesel’s house. Specifically, in a guesthouse planted in an overgrown corner of his grandparents’ backyard. We called it the Barn, or the Sidehatch.
The Sidehatch had moldy furniture, an unreliable toilet, seashell ashtrays, and yellowed window lace. The refrigerator was noisy and warm. A thorny jungle pressed against the back windows. We sank into the spotted divan, clinked cups filled with stolen table wine and scarcely potable vodka sodas, and cheered as Ryan, the greasy angel from Chino, took up residency in the Cohen family pool house.
In dreams I occasionally confuse those two structures—the faded shingles of the Sidehatch easing to smooth, cool white—the way you might confuse a historical personality with the actor who portrayed them on film. That viewing party is a warm memory I often revisit in colder, lonelier moments, and the Sidehatch remains close to my heart, as much an unexpected salvation as Ryan’s Newport Beach.
Like many outbuildings, the Sidehatch accommodated an adolescent desire to try on different levels of independence and domesticity. It served as a stash house and a laboratory, a hideout and a hangout. I have known many. There was Jared’s father’s art studio, though we spent most of our time sitting in wobbly plastic chairs behind the studio, passing a charred soda can back and forth. One summer I lived in the partially renovated dog kennel at Nick’s house. While exploring along the beach we found a hidden shack high on a windy bluff. That shack remains my future fake-death hideaway.
My second-grade classroom was a modular trailer parked behind the schoolhouse. There was something pleasant about having to walk to the main building to use the bathroom or get a drink from the water fountain. If the principal or the nurse needed us, they would have to brave the elements. We had excellent views of the kickball diamond. I spent many afternoons watching gym classes jog its perimeter.
This fascination with outbuildings has been enabled by technology, media, and the relentless growth of that great American spectator sport: high-end real estate. Every Sunday growing up I browsed the listings in the back pages of the New York Times Magazine. Those ads have since been replaced by the addictive multimedia presentations found in the paper’s Home and Garden section (“What You Get For $800,000”). But I was always drawn to the apartment above the garage, the porter’s lodge, the in-law suite or summer kitchen. This was where I could hatch and scheme, nest and smoke. I wanted Christian Slater’s bunker in Gleaming the Cube, Patrick Swayze’s barn loft in Road House, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sewer hideaway.
MTV’s Cribs warmed the more clinical aspects of real estate pornography with the cult of celebrity. If the Sotheby’s ads in the Times were centerfolds, Cribs was the Pamela Anderson sex tape. My favorite Cribs subject was Robbie Williams, the British pop star with extravagant yet fickle tastes. The producers checked in with him frequently. One episode was filmed at a grand English manor. A valet followed Williams everywhere with a silver tray of cigarettes. By our next visit, he was living in a glass cube somewhere in the hills above Los Angeles and there was a Ducati in the driveway. A personally significant (and thematically relevant) Cribs segment accompanied Kimberly Stewart, daughter of Rod, as she wandered her father’s Los Angeles estate. At the end of the tour she invited the cameras into her exquisite, rose-covered guesthouse.
The fantasy created by Cribs was difficult to shake. Like every advertisement, it presented the dream as readily accessible. One-hit wonders were clustered around golf courses in lushly carpeted McMansions. Musicians best known for their graphic odes to misbehavior lounged on white sofas and owned grand pianos. Around every corner there was another home theater or grotto. The glories of adulthood and home ownership beckoned. If a person didn’t grow up to own their version of the Playboy Mansion, they had nobody to blame but themselves.
My addiction to Cribs has since been replaced by HGTV’s House Hunters and its extremely popular sister program, House Hunters International. Were you to drop in some evening, you would likely find me watching a House Hunters International marathon with a screw-top pinot grigio and Craigslist open on my phone. Of course I’ll never go anywhere (apologies to various Costa Rican landlords for all the drunken emails) but that’s probably the point. The ideal HHI episode would tour three Neverneverland bungalows.
What House Hunters lacks in celebrity it makes up for in transparency. An ordinary couple pokes around three homes within a set budget and chooses one. The show features every kind of property imaginable, but they are typically modest. The prospective buyer (and by extension, the viewer) is frequently implored to acknowledge a property’s potential, to imagine a wall or two missing, to just think of all they could do with the place! At the end of each episode we revisit the new owner. Sometimes this potential has been realized, but just as often the rooms remain cramped or otherwise imperfect, only with different furniture jammed into the corners.
As the economy shrunk and careers recoiled like a vacuum cord, public interest in outbuildings spiked. The Joey Fatone Cribs episode has been replaced by websites dedicated to the “tiny house” movement. These can be cabins, tree houses, houseboats, huts, yurts, customized shipping containers, sugar shacks, and silos. There are countless Tumblrs filled with vintage Airstream trailers, gleaming like toasters, parked beside a lake or at the foot of a moonlit mountain range. The walls have closed in on us. Instead of building our Barbie Malibu Dream House, we’re hauling an RV to the latest fracking hotspot. While expensive markets like San Francisco and Manhattan move toward “micro-studios,” averagely proportioned humans—even those with a fondness for outbuildings—might worry about where this trend could lead.
Of course, tiny houses are nothing new to writers, who have historically conspired to trap themselves in the smallest, sparsest spaces possible. From Walden Pond to the studios that dot the grounds of our most prestigious artist colonies, writers seek to squeeze out distraction and fill these sanctuaries with their work. But taken to extremes this isolation has a tendency to backfire. Loneliness and claustrophobia are not particularly conducive to productivity. That is where the main house comes in handy. Kick back, stretch out, make a grilled cheese.
And there’s the uncomfortable, dispiriting truth behind my love of outbuildings: their appeal relies on a warm, welcoming mothership in the near distance. Whether it’s the Cohen family, Rod Stewart, or Yaddo administrators, someone has to stock the cupboard and keep the pipes from freezing.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut and a former Poe-Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. Visit him at mikeymcgrath.com.