We don’t really have quantity-over-quality McMansions in uniform subdivisions in Princeton. We were largely developed by the 1980s when the term and the phenomenon originated. If individual ersatz estates infest outlying parts of Princeton, they’re no problem — except for their owners and the environment — because the lots are large. No one has to see such a house up close — not even the owners, who are typically inside it.
So suppose those owners are content with their veneer Versailles and its Styrofoam crown molding, faux-stucco skim-coated wallboard, and travertine made from epoxy and marble dust. Suppose they can afford to heat and cool their particle-board palazzo. Suppose they trust Merry Maids to clean their tyranno-kitchen. Suppose they plan to sell their schlock Schloss and move on before it curdles. Fine. We’ve already paid for the extra roads and utility lines their large house and lot required.
No, Princeton’s current McMansion problem is when counterfeit castles replace modest tear-downs — an odd problem in a town with many actual mansions. From a 1905 description of Princeton’s Western section: “The residents build on the same street according to their means, but the hand of taste is visible in almost every house. Here is a stately Colonial mansion and beside it is a roughcast cottage overgrown with climbing roses. There is a costly stone house of the Elizabethan style, and beyond, an artistic combination of stucco and timber. … [But] as each house has a sufficient garden space about it to overcome incongruities of juxtaposition, the village becomes more and more attractive as the rivalry progresses.”
Unfortunately, McMansions in Princeton’s denser neighborhoods lack space to overcome “incongruities of juxtaposition.” And, if you live beside a McMansion, your bedroom, which once got morning sun, may now face your neighbors’ Jacuzzi, while the terrace, where you once read today’s paper in pajamas, now abuts their breakfast room. You deplore your neighbors’ sham chateau because it diminishes your privacy and privileges — and maybe raises your property value and taxes.
Based on this reasoning, you could fit McMansion opposition into two camps:
- All McMansions are bad.
- Already-built McMansions in sprawling suburbs are not so bad; ones that threaten the character of older neighborhoods should be fought.
Perhaps the first camp is the purist one: McMansions represent bad architecture, standardization, and overconsumption, wherever they are located. Even if the sprawling McMansions have already constructed roads and infrastructure, they are still costly to provide services to and a poor use of land.
The second camp is the realist group: those suburban McMansions were built a long time ago and some people might even like them (despite all the negative traits we can name in a few paragraphs). However, we don’t want those McMansions to break the containment zone in the suburbs.
Both battles are fought, depending on the location (whether there is still sizable plots of undeveloped land) and the reactions of neighbors (suburban residents can also dislike a new development of big homes going in next door). The first can veer toward the repudiation of all American suburbs while the second can involve heated interactions with neighbors on a micro scale.