Betcha Dela Cruz-Atabug didn’t want a normal living room.
She wanted a place that could spark deep conversations between friends, somewhere that could serve as the ideal listening den for her husband’s vinyl collection, somewhere free of screens and the ails of modern life. So when she saw the sunken living room of her current home while she was house hunting in 2019, she knew it was just right.
Inspired in part by the 1960s-era interiors of the show “Mad Men,” Ms. Dela Cruz-Atabug turned her living room into a conversation pit. With the help of her husband and son, she took out the fencing that encircled the space (“It looked like a crib,” she said), stained the wood a darker color and added burnt orange cushions. It cost her around $500.
“This is where we come together and bond. We read, listen to music and drink coffee and wine. There’s no TV to talk over. We feel like we’re connecting more here,” said Ms. Dela Cruz-Atabug, 46, who manages a law firm in Diamond Bar, Calif.
A conversation pit is an architectural feature that typically has cushioned, built-in seating and is constructed below floor level. They were popular in the United States throughout the mid-20th century, in part because architects and designers saw them as a way to avoid the clutter of furniture. The pit wasn’t limited by geography or site — it could be found carved into a Queens airport, or in a home in Indiana.
They often functioned as indoor playgrounds for adults, sometimes the place for drunken antics. And yet, they evoked chicness, and elegance. Below ground, they were elevated.
Today, conversation pits are making a resurgence. With feelings of isolation exacerbated by a yearslong pandemic and the omnipresent digital screens of work from home, many people view conversation pits as the ultimate symbol of intimacy and a step back toward a simpler time. While some homeowners are going all out and constructing conversation pits, for renters or people who simply don’t have the resources to transform their living rooms, social media has become a place to moon over them, allowing people to vicariously sit in them by way of Instagram and Twitter feeds.
“It feels more intimate. But, most importantly, I love that it encourages conversation and good old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation. We all can use a little more of that, especially in our always-online, always-on-our-phones culture,” said Erika Mackley, 31, an art director in Detroit.
The architectural feature has been an object of fascination for Ms. Mackley for several months. “Bring back conversation pits,” she shared a post on Twitter in April, with photos of several elaborate conversation pits she saw on Pinterest. She wants to have one of her own, but her current apartment is too small, she said. “If I had a home, I would definitely explore it within that space.”
A Fantasy of Togetherness
For many people, conversation pits are unattainable. A New Yorker cannot carve a pit into a studio apartment on the fourth floor of a walk-up. Some people can only experience the design wonders virtually, such as by constructing them on video games like Sims or posting about them on social media. Rock Herzog, an interior designer in Los Angeles who runs the Twitter account @CocaineDecor, said that the conversation pit is the perfect metaphor for the milieu of the times.
“Not only are we physically separated from one another, we are culturally, socially and politically separated from each other, and the end to that separateness is not in sight,” Mr. Herzog, 38, said. “So the conversation pit is this fantasy of ‘what would it be like if we were together again and having a good time?’”
Reeves Connelly, a 25-year-old in Brooklyn who has a popular interior design TikTok account, said that the posts he’s made about conversation pits always get the most engagement. “Every single video I would do about conversation pits would always start a discussion. A lot of people have very strong opinions on both sides, whether they want them to come back or not,” Mr. Connelly said. “I think the pandemic made people more interested in how homes look. With Zoom meetings and everyone making social media posts from their bedrooms or living rooms, something that was private before is now totally public.”
The playfulness and whimsy of conversation pits is what drew Anna Stapor to them. In 2020, she started an Instagram account dedicated to them, posting photos of historical conversation pits as well as modern ones. “There’s something to be said about sitting on a lower level, basically on the floor, and feeling more grounded and more engaged with other people around you,” said Ms. Stapor, a 25-year-old designer in Brooklyn.
What’s stopping her from getting one right now? “Space and money,” she said. “In a way, I use my Instagram as a way to dream and look at spaces I hope to have one day.”
The Peak of the Pit
One of the most well-known conversation pits of the 20th century is in the Miller House, a private residence for architecture patrons J. Irwin Miller and Xenia Miller in Columbus, Ind., completed in 1957. The pit is glorious — it features five steps down into a sea of carpeting and pillows, and the slipcovers were swapped out depending on the season. The interior of the home was designed by Alexander Girard, “the perfecter of the conversation pit form,” said Deborah Lubera Kawsky, an art historian and the author of “Alexander Girard, Architect: Creating Midcentury Modern Masterpieces.”
Because Girard was the director of design for Herman Miller’s textile division, but also trained as an architect, he had an “expansive conception of interior design, one that was inextricably linked with the architecture,” said Dr. Kawsky.
In 1962, a giant, red conversation pit was unveiled at New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, then known as Idlewild airport, designed by Eero Saarinen, who was also an architect on the Miller House. The public, shared setting for this conversation pit helped spread the idea to the masses, Dr. Kawsky said. The flight center, including the conversation pit, was restored and reborn as TWA Hotel in 2019.
In a 1975 interview with The Times, Ward Bennett, a designer, said that he viewed conversation pits and other built-ins as “attempts to eliminate furniture.” Mr. Bennett, who helped popularize the pit, said, “I want to limit, to simplify.”
Many early sketches of conversation pits also featured images of lit cigarettes and martinis, Dr. Kawsky noted. “Entertaining was very important at the time. Designers were trying to show how these architectural forms could enhance that,” she said.
But eventually, the pit lost its sleek and sexy image.
For one, some people started to realize that it could be dangerous. As a 1963 TIME article put it, “At cocktail parties, late-staying guests tended to fall in. Those in the pit found themselves bombarded with bits of hors d’oeuvres from up above, looked out on a field of trouser cuffs, ankles and shoes. Ladies shied away from the edges, fearing up-skirt exposure.”
The rise of the television was another factor. Television sets became mainstream fixtures in American homes by the latter half of the 20th-century, and living rooms started being built around them, quickly making obsolete the conversation pit and its purpose.
“The pendulum swings on these architectural styles, and people eventually want to follow the new styles. As the conversation pit started being associated with a bygone era, people let it go,” Dr. Kawsky said.
‘Like a Huge Playpen’
For those who aren’t fans of 1900s décor, today’s conversation pits have been modernized — they’re often without shag carpets, have minimalist color schemes and can even be found outdoors.
Kristin Korven and Jeff Kaplon of Part Office, a design studio, created an all white conversation pit in 2019 for the Los Angeles home of Geraldine Chung, who owns a fashion boutique. The initial design decision, Ms. Korven said, came about because the space itself was small, and they wanted to make it feel like it had more volume.
Ms. Chung had been “obsessed” with conversation pits for years, she said, and when she learned it would be too difficult to raise the ceiling in her living room to make it more spacious, it was the ideal excuse to install a conversation pit. “I thought, ‘If we can’t go up, let’s go down,’” said Ms. Chung, 45.
The cushions upholstered in Belgian linen, wool carpeting and exotic marble of the built-in side table were all carefully chosen to make the space a textural, sensory experience, and so as not to appear kitschy, Ms. Korven said.
“It’s just so nice having a living room where you’re not praying to the altar of a giant LCD screen,” Ms. Chung said. It’s also incredibly playful: She’s joked about filling it with balls to turn into a ball pit, and when her friends’ children come over, they throw all the pillows into the middle of the pit and dive into it.
All that fun does come with safety concerns though, Ms. Chung noted. “You could throw an elbow and someone would fall in. When I have Christmas at my house and my grandmother and older aunts and uncles are over, I usually put benches or things along the edge,” she said.
Outdoor conversation pits have also started to take off as a more modern take on the trend. Conversation pits in swimming pools have been “increasing in popularity especially for waterfront properties where sightlines across infinity edge pools provide the effect of sitting in the water,” said Bryan Sereny, an agent with Douglas Elliman in Miami Beach. Last year, Mr. Sereny sold a $30 million waterfront estate that had a pool with a sunken conversation and dining pit — “a very desirable feature for the buyer,” he said.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Sarah Dwelley grew up in a home with a conversation pit in New Canaan, Conn. The house was designed by her father, James Evans, and the pit was around 11 by 11 feet, with shag carpeting and about two feet below floor level, Ms. Dwelley, 68, recalled.
“Mostly, it was used when we had parties. My mom and dad loved to throw parties. People would sit on the edge of it with their feet dangling into the pit or get right down into it,” said Ms. Dwelley, who now lives in Camden, Maine. “If people put their drinks down at floor level, one of our dogs would come around and drink their drinks.”
Ms. Dwelley spent time relaxing and doing homework in the pit, and it was also at times a playground. “When my brother just learned to walk — he was probably around 1 — we put him in the pit and he could run around and be safe. It was like a huge playpen,” she said.
After her family sold the house, the pit was covered over with flooring. Earlier this month, it went back on the market for $2.1 million, and potential buyers have expressed interest in restoring the pit, the property’s listing agent, John Engel, said.
“One of my clients said, ‘I want to buy this house and definitely want to restore the conversation pit,’” Mr. Engel said. “Originality has become important as the value of these houses has risen, and the conversation pit is just one component of that.”