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more thoughts on McMansions

August 18, 2011

I’ve been pondering the McMansion question in Elm Heights for several weeks now. When I described the scale of Mr. David Jacobs’ proposed mansion in Elm Heights to my husband, noting that the huge new house will spread across property now occupied by three existing houses and two vacant lots, and will contain seven bedrooms along with a soaring space designed for live chamber music performances, he shook his head with wonder and said simply “That’s just ridiculous.” People have quipped that given the close relationship between Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and Mr. Jacobs’s parents, the University could easily retrofit the existing music building to include a large new top floor directly above Auer Hall in order to accommodate him in style and ensure that he can have access to live music whenever he feels like it.

The size of an average American home today  is somewhere around 2300 square feet. But many upscale homes easily contain six to ten thousand square feet or even more. Find an interesting NPR article on this topic at  Bill and Melinda Gates’s mansion in Washington state contains an astounding 66,000 square feet, similar in size to many big-box stores. (My question to them would be: how on earth can you possibly need so much stuff in your daily lives?)

Ancient Rome's Flavian Palace sprawled across several acres and contained hundreds of rooms.

I don’t at all dispute that Mr. Jacobs deserves to have a home that will make him happy. But is Elm Heights the proper place? The Flavian Palace of ancient Rome topped a hill overlooking the city and contained hundreds of rooms ranging in size from slaves’ quarters to vast banqueting spaces sparkling with mosaics and capped by soaring domes; but the reason the emperors lived like that was because they were EMPERORS. In a democratic society it’s widely considered to be an aggressive act of bad taste to possess a house of enormous size. Nobody loves a McMansion. Wikipedia has this to say: “McMansion is a pejorative term for a large new house which is judged as pretentious, tasteless, or badly designed for its neighborhood.”

With some McMansion owners, the flaunting of conspicuous consumption is compensation for some kind of deprivation in early years; while for others it’s simply an expression of bad taste. Having never met Mr. Jacobs I would never venture to guess his motivations, which very possibly could be as simple as wanting to live within two blocks of the Music School. But the question remains: why would he want to push forward with plans for this mansion, knowing that his new neighborhood is unhappy about it and wishes he would go elsewhere? No man is an island; we all inhabit a complex and nuanced human community filled with other people. And it’s neither good manners nor good strategy to aggravate our neighbors by waving money in the air. That’s why Mr. Jacobs really would do better to seek a property outside the city limits where he can build his mansion in peace and privacy without angering other good people.


From → Houses

  1. Elm Heights is not the proper place for a mcmansion anymore than Hyde Park is the proper place for a 1000 sq ft gable-el with a fantastical garden filling the leftover yard space. Suburbs are protected against houses that would make surrounding houses look ridiculous in scale and setback. Urban architectural character deserves the same protection. Why is this so hard to understand?

    It has to do with respect, and willingness to relate to neighbors. Respect and cooperative consideration is not required in our culture, but lends a congeniality for generations of neighbors, and that nurtures the city as a whole. Like healthy, nutrient-dense food, respect and collaboration makes strong bones and a lovely countenance. It matters. Higher education can nurture that health, but it can also create individuals who feel entitled, or worse; empowered, to ignore the effects of their actions on their neighbors. Is one willing to consider or empathize outside one’s own desires? Let’s see what happens. We will feel the effects all over the city.

  2. Carrol, there’s one more interesting parallel. If one were to build a house three times the size of the surrounding houses in Hyde Park, Blue Ridge, or any of the outlying neighborhoods; how would the neighbors feel? How would the new, big house make the surrounding houses look?

  3. This takes us back to my suggestion about buying his own wooded private estate outside the city perimeter. That would be the only proper place for a house so large.

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