The size, number, and color of disturbing McMansions in Napa Valley

New large homes in Napa Valley are causing some concerns for a variety of reasons:

“As though rising amid the St. Helena vineyards like a megalith” is how Zillow describes one home. It is 6,700 square feet and has 17 rooms, with such outdoor features as a pavilion, pool and tennis court.

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said an area west of Highway 29 south of Rutherford pretty much looks like a subdivision of McMansions. Plus, the 5- to 10-acre parcels have the potential to be covered in patios and outdoor lights…

“The biggest threat to the valley isn’t wineries; it is the proliferation of mansions,” the APAC report stated…

One thing supervisors want to move quickly on is the color of large structures. Several noted that when the county demands earth tones, the result can be structures colored white – “white whales,” Dillon said some of her constituents call them.

Given the concerns here, I wonder why the County does not just make such guidelines for property that would not allow large homes. Instead, they are talking about various guidelines – how much of a property can be devoted to a home, the color of the home – to try to make the more palatable. If large homes are problems, why allow them?

There could be multiple reasons for this approach:

1. Looking extremely heavy-handed as a local government may not be desirable. In trying to find a balance between property rights and community goals or character, these local officials may not want to encroach too far on property owners.

2. It may be desirable to have wealthy residents on large properties. Perhaps this leads to more property tax revenues. Perhaps wealthy residents help enhance the status of the community. Perhaps big houses may have some problems but they are certainly preferable to small-lot subdivisions or multifamily units.

In the end, it sounds like the McMansions or mansions need to meet certain guidelines but limiting the total number of them might be the largest issue.

Drawing artistic inspiration from growing up around McMansions

Artist Katherine Vetne builds upon a childhood spent around McMansions:

Vetne says her interests in exploring (and subverting) objects of status and consumerism started when she was growing up in Newburyport, Mass. She observed the differences between established “old money” and the newly affluent: A lot of the newer families built “McMansion” houses that looked like new versions of the town’s historic homes in an attempt to emulate that status.

Those experiences led to a unique form of art:

Vetne, 31, of San Francisco, has been building a reputation as a sculptor who works in an unusual medium: destruction. Vetne’s best-known work during the past three years has been a series of sculptures made from kiln-melted housewares crystal, which takes a distinctive, puddle-like shape when heated.

She then “mirrors” the melted crystal mass in a chemical process that turns the blobs into reflective objects. The pieces are presented individually or in big groups, like in her “Guilty Pleasures” installation that was part of the Catharine Clark Gallery’s summer show, “We tell ourselves stories … In order to live.” Ford and Vetne took the shopping trip at Clark’s invitation to find the raw material for a piece Ford recently commissioned from Vetne.

The idea of working with crystal, whether it’s fine Baccarat or more mass-market Avon, appeals to Vetne, who is interested in exploring issues of class, gender and materialism. “At the crux of my practice is the more middle-class people with some amount of resources trying to look ‘higher class’ than they are through the objects they acquire. I am interested in concepts of visual excess and how they’re supposed to communicate something. Usually, it’s ‘I have a lot of money.’”

Given the general reputation of McMansions, this is not surprising: take objects by which aspiring people try to build up their status and then destroy them to show what those objects are really about. Perhaps it would even be more shocking if an artist celebrated McMansions.

I’m also trying to imagine this destruction process applied to actual McMansions or parts of McMansions. Could a piece of performance art involve taking a wrecking ball to a McMansion? Or, imagine taking a two story foyer to a museum and showing it falling apart every so often, like the way “Concert for Anarchy” displays a piano in an unusual form. Or, take granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and destroy them.

Empty McMansions do look “eerie” when someone puts RIP on the sidewalk or a teddy bear in the driveway

Pictures of abandoned homes in a Canadian community due to flooding do not look so odd – until the images help point out something is wrong. Take two pictures: first, an abandoned home, and second, an abandoned home with an extra item.

The auction for the homes started at 50 Canadian dollars.

Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com

The homes will cost tens of thousands of Canadian dollars to move, in a conservative estimate. According to the Calgary Sun, many of the bidders have backed out since the auction.

Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com

There are numerous images of homes that could be from innumerable Canadian or American communities where no one is outside at the moment. Imagine a colder day between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM – how many people would be outside their McMansion in a suburban neighborhood? If anything, the lack of cars in driveways might be the biggest giveaway that these are empty homes.

On the other hand, put RIP on the sidewalk and now it looks like someone died in this McMansion. A teddy bear in the driveway suggests childhood has gone awry in that home. These are no longer just McMansions; they are ripe for horror films involving McMansions and twisted suburbanites.

The switch from empty home to eerie or creepy home may not take much. On the whole, these homes look to be in pretty good shape. But, just add a little extra to the information about the home and all the sudden that same home is less than desirable.

Perhaps it is then not too surprising to read the Mission of the photographer:

Seph Lawless, is a pseudonymous American-based Photographer, Artist, Published Author, Political Activist, Huffpost contributor and photojournalist who is best known for his extensive documentation of abandoned places all over the world. His satirical musings and subversive epigrams combine dark humor along with his work.

Abandoned McMansions, “satirical musings,” and “dark humor” could all easily fit negative depictions of McMansions.

Only McMansion owners want expensive deliveries of stone crabs

One Miami business owner describes his business and customers:

The process is simple. State law declares that stone crabs have to be cooked with six hours of being caught. For Abramowitz, there are about fifty fisherman and fifty boats who rake in thousands of pounds of stone crabs every morning. The crabs are then dunked for three minutes in boiling water, and placed in ice, where they will stay fresh for over three weeks. Then Abramowitz places them in boxes and ships them nationwide, using FedEx…
The average Fresh Stone Crabs order is over $400. His customers are mostly doctors, lawyers and CEOs with McMansions, all looking for someone to cater a party with fresh crabs. “It’s like a caviar business,” Abramowitz says.

The national shipping ability seems like a recent move for this business. Thus, it may be possible that the owner knows whether Miami area customers actually lived in McMansions.

At the same time, this description seems a little too convenient because of the two pieces of information provided about potential customers. First, we hear that the orders are typically pricey. A $400 price is a little different than ordering McDonald’s or ice cream delivered to your door. Second, we are told about the occupations of those doing the ordering: professionals who tend to have larger salaries. Who fits this bill (and could also desire caviar)? McMansion owners!

It sounds like the use of McMansion here is part of a description for people with money. Since McMansions are also often criticized for their architecture, this is not a positive term. Would a business owner want to say to people spending $400 on crabs, “Nice McMansion you have here?” Or, is it more likely that he is saying that the kinds of people who can afford and like to order stone crabs are people who live in larger houses in ritzier areas? And one way to say that quickly is to call their homes McMansions.

Finding humor in the interior design in great literature

Great books often feature interesting homes and places. One English professor set out to have some fun with the interior design of these spaces:

The book started with Jane Eyre. I was watching a film adaptation one night and thinking about the particular house that was used as Thornfield Hall in that movie, and also my love of home design sites, like Apartment Therapy, which had actually done a house tour of my house when I moved into it five years ago. I thought it would be funny to think about Jane Eyre giving a kind of similar tour of Thornfield Hall, and mapping that whole narrative of “what your house means to you” onto this really Gothic, terrible space. I decided to keep going, thinking about which houses in literature are my favorites, and it turned into a regular column, at [now defunct feminist website] the Toast.

There’s something so funny about trying to fit these disturbing literary houses into the cookie-cutter language of interior design, and ending up with, say, “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams.” But it also reminds us that in literature as in life, people and their homes are so connected.

The satire about decorating is very warm satire. I really loved doing a house tour, and the whole idea of that, people creating these personally significant spaces and sharing them with one another, with an audience. But it’s always fun to have that dual vision, where you can be a part of something but at the same time stand a little bit outside it and think about what might be funny about yourself and your own domestic tendencies. Since I’m an English professor, the idea of thinking about home in books and in life has always been related. A lot of the models of how I think about my house are literary models—hopefully not Thornfield Hall, though…

The column was initially called “Great House Therapy,” and the idea was to explicitly pair the Apartment Therapy-style house tour with the idea of the great house in literature, these big estates owned by landed gentry. But when I developed it into a book, I wanted all sorts of different literary houses, and apartments, and, for instance, King Lear’s hovel. That play is so much about hospitality, how Lear violates the hospitality of his daughters and is cast out into the storm. I wanted some of the interiors to be totally terrible, and to find the humor in that, so I included places like Raskolnikov’s lair in Crime and Punishment, and the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, a place where the narrator is trapped, and I imagined Jane Eyre talking to Becky Sharp, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, about their dismal governess’s rooms.

Considering the importance of places for humans, it is little surprise that many creative works – books, films, TV shows – involve places that are important for the characters. Yet, at the same time, it can often feel like the places are simply backgrounds for what is happening in the dialogue between character or in the character development. In other words, if you could easily transport the characters and plot to another similar location and little would change, perhaps the depicted places are not really that meaningful.

And given some of the discussion above, it would be interesting to consider the literary (and additional outlets) depictions of McMansions. How exactly will Gone Girl‘s depiction of lonely suburban McMansions hold up? Or, how about creative works that use McMansions like Gothic homes of the past? The discussions of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances may be perfect for spoofing in the future.

Claim: Americans are giving up McMansions for tiny houses

A story about a tiny house promotion in New York City starts with this claim:

Over the past few years, the tiny home movement has picked up steam, with more and more folks deciding to abandon McMansions to live in small houses, typically less than 500 square feet.

I am skeptical about multiple parts of this claim:

  1. Tiny houses may garner some attention. But is there a tiny house revolution going on? I do not know if there is a single researcher or group tracking this but the number of sales is limited.
  2. The term McMansion is clearly negative. There may be fewer McMansions constructed today in the aftermath of the 2000s burst housing bubble but the percentage of new homes over 3,000 square feet has increased in the last ten years. McMansions are back and/or here to stay (and/or never really left). In contrast, in recent years homes under 1,400 square feet have been 7% or 8% of all new homes.
  3. The stronger part of this claim is that McMansion owners are giving up their homes to live in tiny houses. There may be some cases of this but this is quite a dramatic change. I suspect more tiny house owners are wealthier people who choose a tiny house as a vacation home or second home. Or, tiny houses offer helpful options for those looking for affordable housing or the homeless, not those that already have a large home.

In sum, the evidence suggests McMansions are alive and well and tiny homes are limited.

Boulder looks to limit McMansions

The Boulder, Colorado city council recently discussed how to limit large houses and teardown McMansions:

Members were mostly in agreement with a goal of discouraging larger homes, including allowing landowners to subdivide large lots and build second, third or fourth housing structures — provided the new homes were permanently affordable. All members save one felt that encouraging subdivision in Boulder’s lowest-density districts was a good idea: Mirabai Nagle was the lone voice of dissent…

The surfeit of scrape-and-replace builds has already transformed the once-rural neighborhoods, councilwoman Lisa Morzel said in a rebuttal of Nagle’s position, with huge homes that take up every allowable inch of space.

“What was once very rural and very lovely and very open, it’s gone,” Morzel said. “With these giant fences, you can’t have the foxes, the deer, the mountain lions. You’re creating an impermeable” compound.”

Nagle was in favor of pursuing regulations to discourage larger homes, as were most other members. Councilman Bob Yates said he would need “a ton of data or a ton of discussion” before he took a firm position.

Many communities have made similar plans in recent decades. The Boulder leader will not have definite guidelines for a while and the devil might always be in the details of what exactly they allow and rule out.

1. What is the maximum size for new homes? This may seem like the obvious place to start but homes can be built in different ways that either emphasize or hide their large square footage.

2. How should the home sit on the lot? Similarly, a smaller house could appear problematic if it is really close to lot lines.

3. What architecture and design should the home feature? Some communities ask that new homes attempt to fit into the existing neighborhood design. Others might suggest that leading with a large garage in the front is a negative feature.

4. Related to the architecture and design is a question of how the new home should compare to nearby homes in height and width. A new home that is significantly taller can block light. A wider home could break up the streetscape.