Truly, madly, deeply: meet the people turning their basements into secret fantasy worlds

Lifestyle

When Jason Shron and his wife, Sidura, were house hunting in 2007, the Canadian model-train-seller would always head to the basement before viewing any other room. In fact, Shron had only viewed the basement of his current family home when he told his estate agent he’d purchase the property: provided Sidura liked the upstairs, he was ready to go. Shron needed the perfect basement because, for nearly 30 years, he had dreamed of building a life-size replica of a 1970s Canadian VIA Rail railway carriage inside his house, the exact train that took him from Toronto to Montreal to visit his grandmother when he was a little boy.

Step inside Shron’s basement today and you will be greeted by a 200lb blue-and-yellow train door. As you pass through it, an MP3 player will hiss the sounds of air circulation accompanied by the squeaking of gangway connections. Inside the carriage there are rows of vintage reclinable red-and-orange-striped seats, luggage racks, a real VIA garbage can removed from a scrapped train and a metal sign instructing passengers that smoking is indeed permitted. What Shron couldn’t find on the scrap heap, he made. He printed out orange litter bags, custom-printed napkins and engraved wine glasses.

“The great thing was it ended up looking exactly as I’d envisioned it,” the 45-year-old says of his basement train, which took him four-and-a-half years to build and cost $10,000 (the scrapped carriage alone cost $5,000). “I fell in love with VIA trains from the age of two – I became madly obsessed, it’s all I would talk about, all I wanted.” Shron recreated the train that he took to visit family to tap into “that very warm, comfortable, positive energy” he felt as a child. “I get a little bit of that every time I go down to the train.”

Shron’s basement is an unusual thing, but it is perhaps a little more common than you’d expect. A number of people have created their own “worlds” underneath their homes. In late May, the listing for a Maryland mansion went viral after a Twitter user discovered a fake town inside the basement. The basement features cobbled streets, 15 shopfronts, fake flowers and real vintage cars. But even this isn’t unusual. More than a decade ago, a YouTube video documented the basement of John Scapes, an Illinois man who had built an 1890s street under his home.

In the UK, basements are becoming increasingly pop- ular. Between 2012 and 2016, there was a 183% increase in planning applications for underground rooms, with most requests coming from Londoners. As of 2018, the city was home to 112 multistorey “mega-basements”. They feature pools, saunas, cinemas, gyms, art galleries and even catwalks. The nickname “iceberg home” has been coined to describe the property trend; while a house might look fairly ordinary from the outside, a secret world dwells beneath the surface. In July, a London flat next to a Chinese takeaway made headlines after it was discovered that a luxury swimming pool, sauna and kitchenette was hiding in the basement. Meanwhile, the Beckhams are building an underground tunnel at their Cotswolds home. It will act as an escape route/wine cellar for the family.

Across the Atlantic, Shron’s train and the Maryland town aren’t anomalies either. In December 2019, an American man made headlines for transforming his basement into a replica Blockbuster video store, with row after row of rental vids and a snack stand. Seven months earlier, a woman in Canada transformed the space under her stairs into Narnia. Just before that, a Harry Potter fan magazine documented a woman who had created wizarding streets complete with shop windows in her basement. American and Canadian basements are now home to life-size bakeries and wine shops, casinos and arcades. What possesses someone to create their own private world in their basement? What compels them to spend so much money and time bringing their vision to life? And is an underground fantasy-land actually beneficial, particularly when public spaces are shutting down because of the pandemic?

Angela Burns has a village inside her home. In 2012, the 66-year-old builder and designer completed her New Jersey mansion, which she designed with 10ft ceilings in the basement. You enter the space and arrive at a village square, which divides into two cobblestone streets lined with real, functional shops. There’s a coffee shop, a hotdog stand, a wine shop, a bakery, an ice-cream parlour, a pretzel stand, a pizza stall and a newsstand. There’s also an arcade, a bar, a poker room and a 20-seat cinema featuring a concessions kiosk and ticket booth. There’s fake brickwork, fake wooden store signs, fake awnings and fake shop windows. The ceilings are painted blue to mimic the feeling of being outside. The entire basement cost Burns $250,000 (around £190,000, which is just £40,000 under the average price of a UK home).

“It was like building a movie set,” Burns says of creating her miniature world. The hardest part was securing fake cobblestones. Originally, she wanted to use real paving stones, but they were too thick and she feared they might cause people to trip. Instead, she opted for a driveway covering that a tiler could lay.

Why did she create the space to be so unfailingly realistic? “I wanted it to be something that people find interesting and fun and unique.”

Throughout her career designing homes, Burns began to notice that many people would only use one part of a basement and ignore the rest of the space, and she wanted to change things around. She built a spaceship in the basement of her previous home, inspired by episodes of Star Trek; the ceiling lit up like the night sky. “It was a really popular thing,” she says. “I had several bids on the house and the people who bought it kept it all.”

Burns’s basement is designed to be shown off – she rarely visits the space alone and instead uses it to host parties throughout the year. Other people, however, create their basement worlds to be private retreats from everyday life. “We’re so connected with our phones and with social media, that it’s very hard to escape from all the negativity,” Shron says. “To build this space shows a tremendous amount of drive and passion – and then you can escape to that and say, ‘I deal with the real world for 10, 12 hours a day, now I’m going to go for half an hour with a Scotch. I’m going to sit in this world that I’ve created.”

Sam Gosling is a social psychologist at the University of Texas and author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Gosling’s book theorises that we leave “traces of ourselves” in the spaces we create, and these traces are insights into our personality. Gosling says there are three mechanisms connecting us to our spaces. The first, “identity claims”, are the deliberate things we do to communicate our selfhood: posters of our favourite movie on the wall, record players with select records left in prominent positions, bumper stickers on our cars. The second mechanism is also deliberate but less communicative – our homes feature sentimental items designed to remind ourselves of certain memories that may be obscure to others (I, for example, have a personalised rock on my desk from a friend’s wedding). The third mechanism is “residue” – the accidental stuff that communicates who we are, like a messy desk scattered with old coffee cups and crumpled paper.

Gosling says basement worlds are simply a more extreme version of the spaces we all create. “A lot of people have a sewing room, a studio, a garden shed or a workshop,” he says. “The justification and rationale for this is: ‘Oh, I’m going out to fix the lawnmower.’ But actually it’s about having your space that’s under your control.” Gosling says these spaces help us to foster our identity, thoughts and feelings. But when asked why some people might be happy to project their identity on to their environment with a simple framed picture of a train, while others build an entire train in their basement, he confesses, “I don’t know.”

Travis Larson is a 46-year-old construction estimator from Utah who has an unofficial Disneyland in his basement. His replica is strikingly accurate – he spent years photographing walls, lights, mouldings and columns in the theme park in order to recreate every detail. He has a simple answer to the question that stumped Gosling. “Well, it’s kind of my personality,” he says, when asked why he went to such extreme lengths.

Larson says he has always been “detail orientated” and has “always liked things that are a little on the different side”. Surprisingly, he’s not a Disney obsessive – he first went to the park aged five, and he takes his three daughters every couple of years. “Having Disney in my basement I guess kind of satisfies that desire a little bit. So you can go a little bit longer without having to go there.”

The reason Larson chose to recreate Disneyland is because he wanted to do something unique – he considered a pirate theme or a vintage town, but landed on Disney for his daughters. He started making the basement in 2004 and finished it 12 years later. By repurposing materials frugally, he estimates he spent no more than $5,000 on the whole thing. The space features paving stones, railings, park benches and the exteriors of iconic Disney rides such as Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Doors, lamps and windows are extremely detailed and intricate – Larson’s replica of a Disney restaurant even features the same curtain rods used in the park. Like Shron, he also added sound effects – the same music that plays in the parks can be heard in the basement, and he occasionally lights a scented candle to replicate the smell of sweet treats. “I had a mould of bricks and I made probably hundreds of them,” Larson says of his handiwork. “It was extremely time-consuming.”

What, exactly, is the purpose of a private basement universe? Shron uses his train as a home office and also meditates in the space every morning (he has to turn off the horn sounds). Two of Larson’s daughters have bedrooms in his Disneyland, and he has a workshop down there. Both men say the spaces were an unexpected relief during lockdown.

“My kids and I go on train journeys a lot… It was actually one of my kids’ biggest complaints [during lockdown]. Their first complaint was, ‘I miss my friends.’ The second complaint was, ‘I miss the train.’ So it does really relieve that itch.” Larson began working from home because of coronavirus, and says he greatly enjoyed his indoor outdoors. “I catch myself almost forgetting that I created it,” he says. “I spent almost two months working from home, and it was nice, because it felt like I was at Disneyland all the time. It didn’t really feel as if I was cooped up at home; it just felt like I was on vacation.”

Like Shron, Larson sees his space as an “escape”, and both men admit – as Gosling theorised – that they enjoy having a space under their personal control. “Watching a movie or reading a book, that’s one thing,” Larson says. “But it’s different to have a physical location that you can escape to – especially someplace that you know is private or that you kind of control so that way you can make it as magical as you want.” Larson argues that while films and books are mentally immersive, his space is “a physical escape as well as a mental escape”.

A creative personality, expendable income and a lot of determination are common denominators in those who create basement worlds – Shron describes himself as “very much a hardcore nerd”. Yet you may have also noticed that these spaces are extremely nostalgic – vintage villages, 1970s trains and the original Disney park all embody pleasant memories of times gone by. Krystine Batcho is a psychology professor at Le Moyne College who invented the Nostalgia Inventory, a survey that measures personal nostalgia. “There is a purity about childhood that we can never truly experience again in adulthood,” she says. “The phenomenon of actualising a fantasy land within our mundane reality reflects the indulgence of a nostalgic desire for imagination and fantasy.” She adds that in a social climate of uncertainty and conflict, nostalgia can comfort us and connect us to a more secure past.

But why basements? Gosling argues that because those who build these worlds have families with a variety of needs, they can only use redundant, extra space for these projects. There is also a fun element of secrecy and surprise. “In the town that I live in, the exteriors of the houses are all very traditional,” says Burns, owner of the village basement. “You can still have a regular house that doesn’t look weird, and then once you go down those stairs and go to the basement level, it’s a whole new world. It’s fantasy – and it’s whatever you want it to be.”