Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

The most McMansiony residence on Modern Family

Adding to earlier posts on the details of the three primary residences on Modern Family and the way the show was successful even with three McMansions, this post considers which home is the most McMansiony.

https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/house-tours/a23472261/abc-modern-family-house-design/

To make this decision, I am working with the four traits of McMansions I developed: size, relative size, poor architecture/design, and a symbol for other American problems.

The Pritchett House: this is the biggest home at over 6,000 square feet. The relative size is hard to judge since the neighboring homes are almost never seen (I cannot recall seeing them). The home is built in a modern style with big windows and some strange angles. There is a good-sized pool in the backyard. With its size and design, the home could definitely be considered for the wealthy and Jay Pritchett is a successful business owner.

The Pritchett=Tucker home is in a more Mediterranean style (title roof, stucco, balcony, some arched windows and an arched doorway). There is a round turret in the middle with the doorway. Cam and Mitchell have the least space (since they only occupy the first floor on the show). Again, we do not have much of a sense of the surrounding neighborhood since other homes are rarely shown. This is easy to select as the least McMansiony home, at least as presented on the show as a oe story dwelling.

The Dunphy home is nearly 3,000 square feet and built to look like a traditional home with its white picket fence, covered entryway, and front entrance that leads to a hallway as well as a staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. The home seems to fit in of what we see of the neighborhood; we see more of the Dunphy neighborhood than any of the other homes. Phil and Claire are portrayed as typical parents who with three kids are just trying to help their kids be successful and keep their sanity at the same time.

Based on my definition and what we see on the show, I think the home of Jay and Gloria Pritchett best fits the bill of a McMansion. It is large. All that space for a family of four. (When the whole family gathers there, it looks like they all fit easily.) It is the most expensive of the homes. It has newer features plus a pool. The architecture is unique though not necessarily garish – this could depend on one’s view of more modernist homes. As the patriarch with his second family, Jay clearly has plenty of resources (and there are other hints of this on the show as well).

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the Dunphy home is really a McMansion. It is a larger than average home. It costs quite a bit, though this is due more to its metropolitan market and its location. The home does not look garish on the outside; the proportions may be off, the entryway covering is large, and there are multiple gables but it does not scream ostentatious. Furthermore, the show does not portray the family as evil or overly-wealthy McMansion owners; they are a typical sitcom family. Given all of this, I am on the fence about calling this home a McMansion even as a majority of Americans could not live in such a home in that real estate market.

More on the McMansions on Modern Family

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are some more details on the main residences featured on Modern Family and which one I think qualifies as the most McMansion-y. (This post draws on “Stalking from Los Angeles: Houses from Modern Family” – denoted as SfLA below, House Beautiful – denoted as HB below, and the Modern Family Wiki – denoted as Wiki below.)

  • Phil and Claire Dunphy’s house.

“Phil is the only one working in the Dunphy family and as a realtor he’s doing very well. The Dunphy house is worth almost $1.8 million, according to Zillow.com.” (SfLA)

“Phil and Claire’s house is a little more traditional, almost as if it’s ripped directly from an early 2000’s catalog. And that was exactly the goal: The space is supposed to be very comfortable and lived in, with a vibe that’s “Pottery Barn meets Restoration Hardware,” production designer Richard Berg told Architectural Digest back in 2012.” (HB)

“It is a detached, suburban home with two living rooms, kitchen/dining room, 2 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, and a garage. Outside it has both a front and back garden with a trampoline.” (Wiki)

  • Jay and Gloria Pritchett’s house.

“According to Zillow.com Gloria and Jay’s house in Brentwood is currently worth more than $8 million. This 6,359 square foot (590 square meters) single family home has 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms and a pool.” (SfLA)

“Fun fact: That exterior is an actual, two-story house in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood, though most of the filming is done on a soundstage. The Modern Family production team had built “80 percent” of the set before finding the perfect house to serve as its exterior, so they had to go back and change its windows and layout to match, Berg said.” (HB)

“It seems to be the largest and grandest house of the three families, as Jay earns a lot of money from his job. Contains 2 floors, a living room, 1 kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a garage…Outside there’s a front garden and a huge pool that is first seen in “The Incident“, and is frequently seen ever since…The real house is located in Brentwood, 15 minutes away from the house used for Mitch and Cam. There is a whole extra wing of the house that is not show in the shots of the house for the show.” (Wiki)

  • Mitch Prichett and Cam Tucker’s house.

“Cameron’s and Mitchell’s house is very near to the Dunphys (well, for L.A., of course). Their house has 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Its worth: $1.3 million (source: Zillow.com).” (SfLA)

“Mitchell and Cameron’s apartment, with its villa style and ivy snaking up the walls, definitely caught people’s attention. It’s a little more romantic, and even though their home would mean settling for less square footage (they live in the ground-floor apartment of the two-story, technically), their interiors tend to be a little more upscale and collected over time. “We saw the couple as being new to the parenthood plateau and fresh off the plane from years of travel and singledom,” Berg told the magazine.” (HB)

“Unlike The Dunphy House or The Pritchett House, it only has one floor, the upstairs is open for rental, revealed in Slow Down Your Neighbors. Their floor contains a living room, 1 kitchen, 1 bathroom, 2 bedrooms, and a garage. It is revealed in “Mistery Date“, that Lily’s bedroom was previously Mitchell’s home office, but they had to give it up for her room. Outside it has both a front and back garden..” (Wiki)

In summary:

The homes are all large and expensive, located near each other west of downtown Los Angeles, are meant to reflect the characters that live there, and have recognizable exteriors that are then recreated on sets where the interior scenes are shot.

Tomorrow, I will compare how the features of each home match up traits of McMansions. In other words, which Modern Family dwelling is the most McMansion-y?

Modern Family a successful TV show for taking place in McMansions

McMansions do not have a positive reputation yet they can serve as the primary setting for popular television shows. For example, Modern Family had a successful run and featured three large homes:

The path of the mockumentary series arcs from a trailer park in Nova Scotia to a McMansion in Los Angeles. In 2001, the Canadian cult comedy Trailer Park Boys inaugurated a soon-to-be-ubiquitous style of show: deliberately messy, handheld camera work paired with confessional interviews and presenting scripted fiction in the style of candid reportage. In 2020, the ABC megahit Modern Family wound down after 11 seasons and 22 increasingly aggravating Emmy wins. Between those two events lies the rise and fall of a genre that was not reality TV, but came up alongside it and echoed its conventions.

Since the rest of the article is more about mockumentaries as a genre than about the residences of main characters in such shows, I will go on the McMansion tangent regarding Modern Family. Here is what is unique about the McMansions on the show:

1. The McMansions are not objects of derision or mockery. The genre may lend itself to this but Modern Family sought to end episodes and story lines with feel-good family togetherness. The characters were portrayed as goofy or quirky suburbanites who otherwise lived normal lives. The McMansion is the center of family life and good things result for the family that lives there. (Compare this to many recent portrayals of troubled families that live in McMansions – see examples here and here. Or, consider the McMansion on The Sopranos.)

2. The homes are all clearly large and their architecture is unique in different ways: Cam and Mitchell’s home has a turret (and supposedly has an upstairs apartment), Jay and Gloria’s home is more modernist, and Phil and Claire’s home tried for a traditional look. In other words, the show displays the variety of McMansions.

3. These are not just large homes; they are expensive homes in an expensive housing market. The Dunphy home went on the market several ago with a price tag over $2 million. The homes are portrayed as normal yet the houses are not within the reach of many viewers.

4. There is little doubt that Modern Family was successful: 11 seasons? 22 Emmys? A long life in syndication? And it happened even with the consistent presence of McMansions, homes critics would say symbolize all sorts of large American problems. Did the show work in spite of the homes? Was it all just one big wink and nod about the characters and their homes?

Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.

McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

From self-help advice to living in a McMansion

Two authors looking at patterns in self-help books suggest they provide readers with aspirations and dreams of living in McMansions:

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts of the “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow the rules of one self-help book for two weeks...

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

From The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 to today, Americans seem to enjoy looking for reinforcement regarding getting ahead and becoming successful in life. And it is not an accident that this often connects back to the suburbs. I take the reference above to “living in a McMansion” to be a reference to achieving the American Dream, often defined as living with a nuclear family in a suburban single-family home in a attractive neighborhood or community. This is a powerful ideology reinforced by decades of government policy, American values, race, and religion.

A lot of this came together in the 1950s: with postwar prosperity and change, numerous social forces – including self-help books – promoted a suburban lifestyle. This was not without its critics attacking the suburban good life from numerous angles, ranging from urbanists promoting city life to clergy decrying the abandonment of cities, but they could do little to stem the tide. (See James Hudnut-Beumler’s book Looking for God in the Suburbs has the best academic treatment of this subject.) After this, the American Dream was sealed: it was not just about getting ahead or making a better life but rather involved a successful suburban life.

It is also interesting to consider why a McMansion is a potent symbol of this suburban good life through self-help. Is it because it is a relatively new home? Is it because the external features of the McMansion – architecture, square footage, impressive facade – are meant to impress? (Critics of McMansions would argue that these are exactly the problems with McMansions: they appeal to particular tastes and hide all sorts of deficiencies.) Are there people who follow self-help principles, become successful, and buy tasteful older homes or live in mid-century modern suburban homes?