To most observers, 398 Townline Road in Commack, Long Island, looks like a typical American house. To the documentary filmmaker Jake Gorst, who stumbled across it a few weeks back, it was something else: the “Typical American House.” Half a century ago, a replica of this mid-century three-bedroom suburban box—sliced open down the middle, so tour groups could come through and gawk—became famous as the “Splitnik,” demonstrating to an incredulous Soviet people the heights of comfort enjoyed by the average American family. That copy of 398 Townline, erected in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park in the summer of 1959 and fitted out with GE appliances and furniture from Macy’s, was the stage for a public altercation between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon—the famous “Kitchen Debate”—over the differences between their economic systems. “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merit of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?” Nixon asked. (The saturnine premier was not convinced.)
The house in Commack was designed by Stanley Klein for All-State Properties, a home-building company that had made the spectacularly smart move of hiring a young William Safire as its press agent. Safire, later a Nixon speechwriter and a Times columnist but even then canny in the ways of Washington, helped persuade the State Department that his client’s $13,000 plain-vanilla home would make the perfect centerpiece for the American exhibition in Moscow.
What looked modest in Suffolk County seemed palatial in the U.S.S.R., and the Soviet state news agency Tass grumbled: “There is no more truth in showing this as the typical home of the American worker than, say, in showing the Taj Mahal as the typical home of a Bombay textile worker.”
Since Klein’s original design was too cramped for the crowds expected at the exhibition, the developer—at the behest of the State Department—hired the designer Raymond Loewy and his architect, Andrew Geller, to pry the building apart along a central corridor (hence the name “Splitnik”). The temporary structure, built and demolished in Moscow, may have had more impact back home than it did in the Soviet Union. All-State used the Kitchen Debate as a marketing tool, and hired Geller to design Leisurama, a development of affordable beach homes in Montauk that came “fully equipped for modern living with everything included, from central air conditioning down to brand-new toothbrushes.”
Today, this proletarian palazzo is the home of Michael Randazzo, a contractor who had only a vague idea of his property’s history until Gorst knocked on his door. The filmmaker, who is also Geller’s grandson, had been looking for it for years, through a career spent tending his grandfather’s legacy and making documentaries, including one called Leisurama. He had come to know almost everything about the Commack house—except where, precisely, it was or even if it still existed—when he pulled up to a red light in Commack, spotted the house’s FOR SALE sign, and recognized it “instantly.” The Cold War relic was perfectly preserved except for the addition of vinyl siding, some fresh insulation, and a renovated interior. (It’s not $13,000 anymore either. Randazzo is asking $310,000.) Gorst had hoped to find some of the original appliances still installed, but, appropriately enough, the kitchen that Nixon held up as one of capitalism’s proudest achievements was scrapped long ago.