At first glance, the two-story stucco house located on Red Bark Lane in Henderson, Nevada, looks very much the same as the neighboring homes located in the South Valley Ranch community. Neutral exterior paint covers the sides and attached garage. A rock garden has been spread over the soil. A cement walkway leads from the driveway to the front door.
Look closer and the irregularities begin to appear. The house has protruding bay windows and a rounded front entryway, which are both unusual for the prefabricated construction on the block. A chimney juts out from the roof, though Nevada residents are rarely in need of a wood-burning fire. Around the garage, some of the light-colored paint is flaking, revealing a cornea-scorching bright orange underneath.
Once upon a time, the house on Red Bark Lane wasn’t just another address in a sprawling suburban development: It was originally built as a nearly exact three-dimensional replica of 742 Evergreen Terrace, the Springfield residence of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. Working on a short schedule, architects and builders de-fictionalized the home featured in The Simpsons for a 1997 giveaway that was intended to leave one lucky fan with the ultimate in cartoon memorabilia. No detail was spared, from a food dish for their cat, Snowball II, to Duff beer cans in the fridge.
But controversy soon erupted in this faux-Springfield mock-up. The homeowner's association wasn’t keen on having a cartoon house that broke conformity requirements by being painted solar yellow. The sweepstakes winner rejected it outright. And the current owner had to learn to live with the property being a source of perpetual curiosity for fans of the show who brazenly turn her doorknobs and peer through her windows at all hours of the day and night. As it turns out, the reality of living in a fantasy can get a little complicated.
Heading into its 30th season in the fall, The Simpsons is the longest-running primetime scripted series in television history, surpassed in overall longevity only by daytime soaps, Sesame Street, and late-night institutions. Despite criticisms that the show has exhausted its potential, it remains a profitable empire for the Fox network, with no announced end in sight.
In 1997, the show’s future was less certain. Sales of tie-in Simpsons merchandise had fallen off from its high in the early 1990s, where it had raked in roughly $2 billion during a fevered explosion in popularity. Revenue had waned and so had licensee interest: The number of companies producing Simpsons goods dropped by 75 percent. In an attempt to reignite awareness, product merchandisers for the show planned a major rollout for best-of VHS tapes and a CD-ROM titled Virtual Springfield that would allow users to explore the family’s hometown and interact with its regulars.
What the network needed was a promotional vehicle—something to drive interest in both the show and its ancillary products. That idea came not from within Fox, but from an outside marketing expert who saw an opportunity for some corporate synergy. Jeff Charney was responsible for marketing at Kaufman and Broad, a home builder looking to promote both its brand and a new housing development in Henderson, Nevada, about 16 miles southeast of Las Vegas. While brainstorming in the shower, Charney got the idea to erect a replica of the Simpsons' home. He brought it to Kaufman and Broad’s builders, including project manager Mike Woodley. After determining it was feasible, the company pitched it to Fox, who gave their approval to proceed.
“It was a big deal for Kaufman and Broad because it meant all kinds of exposure,” Woodley tells Mental Floss. "The house itself was a pretty simple box-on-box design with a garage. I think I sketched it out in a day.”
There was some precedent for the stunt. In the 1970s, Kaufman and Broad chairman Bruce Karatz had agreed to build a house on top of Au Printemps, a department store in Paris, with the idea that it would intrigue people enough to visit the store’s upper floors. When they reached the summit, a Kaufman and Broad salesperson was waiting to pitch them on buying one of their homes.
The gimmick was hugely successful for both the builder and Au Printemps—it attracted more than 500,000 visitors in the four months it was open, and cemented the company as one that thought well outside the standard marketing boxes. “Bruce was an innovative guy,” Simpsons house architect Manny Gonzalez tells Mental Floss. “The easiest way to get publicity is to build a special house.”
Once the project was approved, Woodley and Gonzalez pored over 100 episodes of the show and storyboards on loan from the production to try and discern a layout. “We took a floor plan we already had and did things that still had to meet building code but was reminiscent of The Simpsons,” Gonzalez says. “We never would have put in a rounded door or windows in the spots they were in.”
The team’s goal was to be 90 percent normal, with occasional lapses into cartoon continuity. Door frames were widened and lengthened to accommodate Marge’s hair and Homer’s girth. The stairs leading to the second floor were slightly steeper than normal. The downstairs floor was poured and painted concrete rather than hardwood or carpet, the better to mimic the show’s flat colors. Bart’s treehouse was erected in the backyard.
“We knew someone had to live in it, so the kitchen was a little bigger than it is on the show,” Woodley says. “It had to be a real house.”
Construction was only part of the illusion. To get that lived-in look, a Hollywood production designer and photographer named Rick Floyd came in and accentuated the home with details that would impress the critical eye of series creator Matt Groening and die-hard fans alike. Floyd hung corn cob-patterned curtains in the kitchen; Bart’s bedroom closet held a row of identical shirts and shorts; mouse holes were painted on the walls near the floor; Lisa’s saxophone leaned against her bed. He even painted an oil stain in the driveway, a nod to Homer’s lack of automotive maintenance. He also flagged down a vehicle he saw while driving and offered the surprised owner $700 for it. Painted purple, it was a perfect match for the Simpsons' iconic wheels.
“We essentially disguised a regular tract home to look like The Simpsons home,” Gonzalez says.
As the house neared completion in August 1997 after just four months of work, local Kaufman and Broad employees sometimes came by for a look. “I drove by it when I was pregnant with twins,” Danielle, then a secretary for the company, tells Mental Floss. “Honestly, I declined to go in, because I wasn’t a fan of the show and it was too hot.”
By this point, Fox and Kaufman and Broad were arranging tours for locals and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the interior. Groening came out for an appearance and spray-painted some Bart graffiti on the garage before signing his name in the front path cement. Lines with wait times of more than two hours twisted around the block, and visitors were expected to wear surgical-style booties to avoid tracking in dirt from outside. Surprisingly, there were few attempts at swiping the decor.
“We glued a lot of stuff down,” Gonzalez says.
Fox kept the home open for tours that fall, all for the purpose of promoting the sweepstakes being advertised via Pepsi products. Buying Mug Root Beer, Brisk Iced Tea, or Slice would net consumers a numbered game piece. If it matched the one broadcast during the fall premiere of the show, they’d be the winner of the replica home, which Kaufman and Broad valued at $150,000. (First-place prize: a one-year supply of Mandarin Orange Slice.)
On September 21, 1997, those in possession of the game piece watched “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” an episode that was later pulled from syndication for a brief period after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks due to images and references to the World Trade Center. During the broadcast, the winning number was flashed onscreen.
Whoever held the winning game piece (number 9786065) never stepped forward to claim their prize. The back-up plan was to choose at random one of the raffle forms that consumers could also submit via mail. In December 1997, it was announced the form chosen belonged to Barbara Howard, a 63-year-old retired factory worker from Richmond, Kentucky. She lived in an area so rural that Fox’s dispatched limo couldn’t get down the dirt road to her home. The network flew her in—her first time on a plane—with her two daughters and grandson. She gambled a little at the casinos and posed for photos with a ceremonial giant key to her new home. She told the press she was still trying to process her good fortune.
That December, with the adrenaline of defying the odds having worn off, Howard came to a decision. She didn’t want the house after all.
“She took the cash,” Gonzalez recalls of the sweepstakes outcome. “You had the choice of either the house or a cash prize, but the cash was substantially less than the value of the house.”
Howard accepted $75,000, which some observers found curious. Why ignore the property value? Why not keep it open for tours? The reasons were simple. Howard lived on an ostrich and tobacco (not tomacco) farm in Kentucky with her husband, was perfectly comfortable there, and had no motivation to relocate. Opening it for tourism was more or less prohibited; the homeowner’s association wanted the orange and yellow exterior repainted as soon as possible. She did briefly broach the possibility of having Kaufman and Broad move the house to her property, but the logistics of that made it implausible.
“I don’t think she was as blown away by it as her daughters were,” Gonzalez says. “I think she felt a little overwhelmed. There were all these photographers and writers. She was just a simple country homemaker.”
That left the fate of the house to Kaufman and Broad. Having sold over 100 homes in the development—which was eventually renamed Spring Valley Ranch from Springfield Spring Valley Ranch—the property had already served its purpose in marketing exactly as the Au Printemps roof house had two decades prior. “We were the fun home builder instead of the production home builder,” Gonzalez says.
Groening floated the idea of blowing the house up on live television, which seemed unlikely given its residential location. It was repainted in muted colors to appease the homeowner's association. As it sat vacant, Kaufman assigned 24-hour security so no one would ransack its contents. But by the second year, the guards' attention had waned, and people had managed to sneak in and swipe several of the design elements. Glue traces marked where Simpson family “photos” had been pried off the wall. Snowball II’s cat food dish was no more.
Kaufman and Broad considered tearing the house down or retrofitting it to conform to the neighborhood and attract conventional buyers. But the most cost-effective way was to simply sell it, even if it was below market value.
One day in 2001, Danielle—the secretary who had previously shrugged at taking a tour—was browsing their inventory when she came across the address. At first, she didn’t associate it with the cartoon house she drove past four years prior. But the price was right, and she was in the market for a larger home.
“I asked how much, they told me, and so I bought it,” she says. “As is.”
With her husband and two boys, Danielle became the first—and only—occupant of the Simpson house. While the outside had been repainted, the interior was a dizzying palette of primary colors.
“They had put in flooring, but the paint was original, so no two touching walls were the same color,” she says. “The master bedroom had a lavender ceiling, pink moulding, and four different-colored walls. It was like being in a Crayola box.”
Someone had even stolen a tree from the backyard. Several doors that looked like pantry storage opened into a wall. “That was the state it was in,” she says. “People have said, ‘Oh, I would have just left it how it was.’ It would have made me nuts.”
Danielle—who prefers not to use her last name for reasons that will shortly become clear—repainted walls and repaired missing chunks of drywall where looters had pried off portraits. She replaced carpeting, exposing the red floor underneath that her sons wanted to keep exposed. (She declined.) She has to repeatedly remind the tax assessor that the house doesn't really have a fireplace.
Giving the home a makeover hasn’t deterred Simpsons fans from taking a pilgrimage there. Once, a group of drunken college kids were banging on the door, yelling to be let in. Danielle’s sons started chatting with them from the upstairs bedroom window. People will check to see if the door is unlocked. Many snap photos or video, then upload their pilgrimage. Few of them seem to stop and consider the intrusive nature of their sightseeing.
“We’ll be sitting watching a movie and someone will be yanking on the door,” she says. “We’re vigilant about keeping the doors locked.”
After getting divorced, Danielle refinanced the home and bought out her ex-husband’s equity, leading some internet sleuths to determine the property had somehow sold for $14,000. (It didn’t.) When Danielle remarried in 2014, she told her new husband that kind of scrutiny around the property would be par for the course. “I kind of signed up for it," she says. "It’s not really a big deal. Most people are cool.” Because the family has Ring, the camera-equipped smart doorbell, she sees people come and go. One man came with a giant stuffed animal and sat down with it in front of the house. “That was a weird thing.”
The house also gets mail addressed to the Simpson family, a likely consequence of fans having some harmless fun. “I once got a letter addressed to Homer from the Salvation Army,” she says. “There have been shampoo samples for Marge and a flyer from PetSmart for Santa’s Little Helper.”
Even though it's gotten a facelift, the home doesn’t often get attention from potential buyers. “I’ve never really had an offer on it,” Danielle says. “People look for certain features, and they see a lack of closet space, no first-floor bathroom … it’s a fun idea but it doesn’t get far.”
The house’s legacy seems to have persisted beyond the giveaway. Kaufman and Broad briefly considered doing a house based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas; Woodley, who was not a regular viewer of the series, continues to be surprised by the attention The Simpsons receives. “I didn’t realize how big a thing it is for some people. I looked at it as a design challenge. I didn’t think of it in terms of the grandness of it. When people today hear I designed The Simpsons house, it’s like, ‘Really, oh, my God.’”
For now, Danielle says she’s very happy in the neighborhood and only occasionally bothered by curious fans. (It’s better if you don’t stare into her windows.) And though she’s still not a huge fan of the show, she does acknowledge the looming yellow shadow she’s elected to live in. “My neighbor’s dad is actually a pastor,” she says. “It’s too easy to go there with a Flanders joke.”