Toll Brothers and “the proliferation of McMansions”

An obituary for Robert I. Toll connects Toll Brothers and McMansions:

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Robert I. Toll, L’66, a former University Trustee, an emeritus member of the Carey Law School Board of Advisors, and the co-founder of transformative home construction company Toll Brothers, died on October 7 at home in Manhattan. He was 81.

Mr. Toll was born in Philadelphia suburb Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, to a father who was involved in Philadelphia real estate and who had successfully rebuilt his career after the Great Depression. Mr. Toll graduated from Cornell University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, then graduated from Penn’s Law School three years later. He briefly worked at the Philadelphia law firm Wolf, Block, Schorr, and Solis-Cohen, but then founded Toll Brothers with his younger brother Bruce in 1967. To start out, “we built two homes,” Mr. Toll recalled. “Instead of selling them, we used them as samples for the lots we owned down the street.” These sample homes landed the brothers contracts to build 20 more homes, which each sold for $17,500. Robert, Bruce, and Alan Toll were among the first postwar housing developers to recognize how trends in highway construction would allow access to swaths of farmland for housing and shopping developments. 

Over the next five decades, under Robert Toll’s leadership of the company as chair and CEO, Toll Brothers rapidly grew to become, as the company’s slogan boasts today, “America’s luxury home builder.” The company recognized shifting demographics in the U.S. during the 1970s and targeted baby boomers looking to trade upward. The Toll Brothers blueprint included targeted land purchases, appeals for quick zoning approval, and predesigned houses that allow room for personalized changes by buyers. Boosted by the proliferation of McMansions and the implementation by zoning boards of two-acre lot sizes in many American suburbs, Toll Brothers became a force in the American housing market. Today, over 150,000 American families in 24 states live in a Toll Brothers-built home. Toll Brothers appeared on the Fortune 500 list, and Robert Toll spearheaded several philanthropic initiatives, including Seeds of Peace, a summer camp in Maine for children from global conflict. His many professional honors included recognition as one of the world’s top 30 CEOs by Barron’s magazine in 2005 and as best CEO in the Homebuilders and Building Products Industry by Institutional Investor magazine in 2008 and 2009. The Wall Street Journal once called Mr. Toll “the best CEO in the housing business.” 

Did Toll Brothers take advantage of an opportunity to sell luxury homes to a growing market or help create and establish a growing market? Would they call their luxury homes McMansions or is that a term applied by others?

No matter how these questions are answered, it is clear Toll Brothers contributed to the trend of larger and more expensive homes in the United States. Over 150,000 homes is a sizable number of dwellings. The shift to large-scale builders in the mid-twentieth century is an important factor in suburbanization and housing more broadly.

Additionally, what will happen to all of these luxury homes? Will they be updated and renovated for decades? I assume a good number are situated in neighborhoods and communities where they will not be near any cheaper or denser housing. Will some become teardowns? Will at least a few be preserved? There is still more of the Toll Brothers story to tell.