Exterior Christmas decorations a symbol of class status?

I have considered how a well-kept lawn and a yard devoid of weeds and autumn leaves are symbols of social class. Are Christmas decorations similar markers?

I would say the majority of suburban single-family homes feature no exterior Christmas lights. By that measure, having lights is not the same as having a neat lawn. In many suburban neighborhoods, it is a necessity or requirement to keep one’s lawn cut to a reasonable height. Of course, people of certain means or tastes can take more care of their lawn and landscaping beyond just the basics of what is required. Similarly, many homeowners will take care of many of their leaves while those who desire to get rid of every leaf will take the extra steps.

Perhaps Christmas lights then are more like dealing with weeds. The homeowner who wants to keep up their property values and/or contribute to the appearance of the neighborhood will eliminate weeds before they even sprout (rather than addressing the issues as they arise). Christmas lights are a nice touch but not necessary in the same way as a green lawn.

Christmas lights may not function in the same way as these other exterior touches for several reasons:

  1. The Christmas season is relatively short. Some might get a head start on lights and decorations before Thanksgiving but the full seasons of lights is probably about six weeks long (Thanksgiving through New Year’s). In comparison, people have green lawns and growing plants for months.
  2. Not many homes are sold at this time of year, particularly in colder climates, compared to other months, particularly the early Spring to mid-Summer window. Thus, Christmas lights have a more limited impact on property values (and may not be remembered much at other times of the year except in egregious cases for distasteful decorations or displays that draw too much attention).
  3. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. (I suppose the flip side of this is that many homeowners celebrates lawns or nature or spring/summer or something like that. Or, maybe they are just bored.)
  4. There is not the same cultural importance on Christmas decorations for homes compared to the long-standing interest in having a green lawn from the beginning of suburbs to Levittown to today.

In sum, Christmas lights and decorations do not matter as much as lawns as markers of social class and property values. Those with more resources can put together larger displays and might veer toward more aesthetically pleasing displays than those without resources or different tastes. Given the commercialism of Christmas and the decreased emphasis on lawns, could there one day be more interest in Christmas decorations than a well-maintained lawn? This is a long shot…

Americans want the “New Old House,” an older-looking home with McMansion amenities

The Wall Street Journal describes the trend of architects and builders putting together homes that look old and have character but have all the latest features:

“The first words that come out my clients’ mouths are, ‘We’d love to have a real old house. We just can’t find one,’ ” said architect Russell Versaci, who runs a Middleburg, Va.-based practice. “And the second thing they say is, ‘We are so sick of McMansions. We just want to get out and get back to reality.’ ”

What architects like Mr. Versaci—along with certain discriminating prefab builders and house-plan companies—offer instead is known as the New Old House: a sanely proportioned residence that’s historically accurate on the outside, but conceived for the needs of modern Americans on the inside. Austere Greek Revival farmhouses with roomy island kitchens. Time-travelesque Craftsman bungalows with startlingly open floor plans. Walk-in closets designed to hold more than a few Civil War-era muslin petticoats…

The exhibition is timely. According to Amy Albert, editor of Custom Home—a Washington, D.C.-based magazine that caters to architects, designers and high-end builders—a hankering for authentic traditional residential design is one of 2014’s big trends. That said, “People aren’t seeking exact replicas of historical houses,” she added. “They want architectural purity in the elevations and the details, but inside they want connectivity and open floor plans.” Discerning homeowners, she said, are demanding that custom builders bone up: “Mixing a Palladian window with a Craftsman column is not going to cut it. Even if people don’t have the vocabulary to articulate why it’s wrong, they instinctually know it is.”…

Both Mr. Versaci and Mr. Schafer acknowledged there’s something potentially inauthentic about recreating oldness, especially if you go to the extent of simulating patinas on stone (using coffee) or, as Mr. Schafer mentioned, importing $50,000 mature beech trees so your New Old House’s landscaping doesn’t look too new. “Making a mirage is an issue,” said Mr. Versaci. “My personal preference is to let a house age through natural processes. If you choose quality, natural materials like unlacquered brass, they will eventually age. But some 21st-century Americans, who are used to ‘add water and serve,’ just don’t want to wait.”

One of the more interesting parts of the new second edition of A Field Guide to American Houses is the last section on newer houses, dubbed Millennial Mansions, which discusses the differences between an authentic looking older home and a fake looking older home. For example, a new home in a Craftsman style might not have the correctly proportioned pillars on the porch or might be built on a slab when such older homes in this style usually had a basement.

Yet, the problem with historicity is not just about recreating the past. There is also an odd lack of interest in a historic interior as it is all about the exterior. If anything, this just reinforces the same mindset these people criticize about McMansions: it is all about making an impression with the exterior and then having a flashy interior. Would the people who complain McMansions don’t provide a good psychological fit make the same complaint about these new old houses?

Also, are these New Old Houses much smaller than the average McMansion?

Emphasizing the McMansion interior

Many times, McMansions are defined by their exterior: a many-gabled roof or a mish-mash of architectural styles or a cookie-cutter home or a large home that seems to overwhelm its relatively small lot or doesn’t fit into an older neighborhood. But a Sarasota blogger suggests that one could have a small home with a “McMansion interior”:

They have a new development out at Lakewood Ranch called Central Park, and even though it’s very generic and a little closely packed for my taste, they have finally done what I have been hoping somebody would do for years—build a small, inexpensive house that suggests a McMansion inside, but on a tiny scale. By that I mean it has things like a particularly nice master suite and fancy master bath, high ceilings—many coffered and trayed, lots of windows, imaginative layouts, big, well-integrated kitchens, cute little dens and lanais, entrance foyers—all for well under $200,000.

This definition suggests that McMansions can be more about the luxurious interior appointments than the garish or ostentatious outside.While the exterior qualities tend to draw negative attention, would this interior flourishes get the same criticism? I would guess no for several reasons. The interior is not as obvious to outsiders and so it is harder to call it ostentatious. Also, there seems to be a higher level of tolerance for interior appointments: the Subzero refrigerator or Viking stove or 60″ LED TV seem more acceptable as consumer items that are still useful.

Additionally, this story hints at what is likely already a trend: smaller homes with luxury upgrades. A homebuyer no longer needs large amounts of money to buy the square footage typically associated with luxury. Although your home might be just over 1,300 square feet (the size of the model reference above), you too can feel like you live in a mansion.