Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Big Houses

Over at Rob Hardy's Rough Draft, there has been some discussion of so-called McMansions -- huge new houses on the edge of town that seem ostentatious, super-sized for no good reason, and mismatched with the landscape.

My grandmother owned an eight-bedroom brick house on Buzzard's Bay. Every bedroom had its own bath. There were servant's quarters on the third floor, a butler's pantry, a sun room, a large formal dining room, a long porch overlooking the bay. It had a detached four-stall garage with a two-bedroom apartment above it. To complete the picture, it had a circular driveway. (For some reason, the driveway was the one feature that, for me, distinguished the place as a mansion and not just a big house.) In the picture of Sias Point, you can see the house on that large lot near the top left (the copyright mark is on the north border of the property). When my grandparents lived there, the pointy part of Sias Point was empty because the houses had all been destroyed by a hurricane.

My family made the long drive from Indiana to "the Cape" every summer when I was growing up. We very much enjoyed the house and the beach. My grandma and her hubby (step-grandpa) didn't own a boat, didn't swim, didn't fish. They bought the house for several interesting reasons.

My step-grandpa was a wealthy businessman and wanted a house to match his economic and social stature. He was a little like the character played by Anthony Hopkins in "Meet Joe Black." His peers all owned houses on or near the Cape.

My grandparents had grown up poor, she in a rough neighborhood of Baltimore, he near the shipyards of Maryland's Eastern Shore. They liked the house because it represented a prize for a lifetime of hard work and persistence, though Grandma was also slightly embarrassed by it, reminding her grandkids often that life was not about money and big houses.

And the house was a bargain (relatively) because it had been abandoned after a hurricane. My grandparents bought it and fixed it up, partly with their own hands. A smart investment.

As my father would say, I feel very strongly both ways.

On the one hand, people who can afford such houses (old money, new money, whatever) should build them or buy them if they want to. Just because I can't (or won't) doesn't mean they shouldn't. You work hard, get through med school, pay off the student loans, save up for a few years, set aside money for the kids' college fund, and build a big house. It's the American dream, people!

On the other hand are all the arguments about waste and the environment and the yawning chasm between rich and poor. Oh, yes, it would be so nice if those rich folk would give away more of their money and live modestly among the rest of us. They really should, shouldn't they? Or we can pine for an economic structure that spreads rewards in a more equitable way. Why is a doctor's skill so much more valuable than, say, a highway engineer or a high school teacher?

Well, friends, I do not know the answer. Which reminds me of a poem by Richard Brautigan (from "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.")

Let's Voyage into the New American House

There are doors
that want to be free
from their hinges to
fly with perfect clouds.

There are windows
that want to be
released from their
frames to run with
the deer through
back country meadows.

There are walls
that want to prowl
with the mountains
through the early
morning dusk.

There are floors
that want to digest
their furniture into
flowers and trees.

There are roofs
that want to travel
gracefully with
the stars through
circles of darkness.


Daymonster said...

I think McMansions are slightly different than the house that you traveled too each summer.

Most people have issues with these Pseudo Mansions that pop up on former farming land. They often are not built with the environment in mind, the lots have no trees and they all look a like. I am not saying whether it's right or wrong but I see this as the issue here, not just people being able to afford nice houses.

If it was just about a disparity of wealth people would have more issues with 500k condos. (Not that people don't) Many of these McMansions are not even that expensive, it's just more of a push back against all things homogeneous and suburban.

The fact that your grandparents house has character and probably isn't like everything else on the street makes it interesting and not a McMansion.

Jim H. said...

You're right, Mr. Daymonster, about why these houses are mildly offensive, whereas to drive or stroll past the stately homes on Summit Avenue is pleasant.

And thanks for the comment...

Greg said...

I think the environmental & aesthetic problems raised by these piles are the real issues, but thanks for reminding us to be aware of possibly hidden motivations such as envy.

Here's a recent Oppen link you might find interesting:

Rob Hardy said...

Here is a link to the house that my wife's great-grandfather built with his fortune (amassed, no doubt, through environmental damage and semi-slave labor; he founded Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company). Beautiful house, with a lot of character that, yes, is missing in these "McMansions." But I'm more concerned with the ecological footprint of these new houses: they have to be heated and cooled, for example. I guess I would have less of a problem with a sustainably designed mansion that blended well with its environment. But that mansion outside of Northfield is not just an unsightly bulge on our local landscape, its also a stripped mountaintop in West Virginia; Harm radiates out from it; And it will likely never become an historical tourist attraction like my great-grandfather-in-law's house in Akron.

I hear that the big house I pictured on my blog is owned by a couple of doctors. I know doctors do good work, but do health care costs need to be so high that they can build houses like that?

Jim H. said...

Yeah, but what did you think of the poem?

Rob Hardy said...

The poem is brilliant.

Greg said...

Hey Jim! Thanks for the feedback on my latest. Go back over and check out the revision.