Thomas Frank's latest is on the post-Great Recession resurgence of the McMansion. After falling briefly in 2009, the average square footage of new home construction in the U.S. has resumed its inexorable growth. It's a surprisingly bland offering from Frank, telling us little that we didn't already know. With no judgment – because god knows I've been there – it comes off as a piece one writes when unable to think of a topic on a deadline.
The main point is that new home construction is a kind of monument to American vacuousness, as our society place great value on living not only in large homes but in large homes of the dumbest and most ostentatious kind. One thing I think Frank misses, or misses a chance to emphasize, is that the Babbitt class has always valued size as a means of displaying wealth. This is not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of differences, though, between the Big Houses of yesterday and of today. The real issue is a little more subtle than his approach suggests.
I live in a home built in 1907. In fact the entire neighborhood consists of homes built between 1880 and 1910 (which, I believe, was the last time anything good happened to this city). To illustrate a few points, I wandered around with my camera for about a half hour on Sunday afternoon. Suffice it to say the homes here are not small. They border on giant. And these were homes occupied by bank managers, dentists, realtors…precisely the kind of new money middle class that flocks to McMansions today.
It's not only big, it's adorned with a lot of the same gaudy ornamentation that characterizes today's suburban tract palaces. The nouveau riche of today appear to be startlingly similar to those of the turn of the 20th Century. That said, there are a number of respects in which I think Frank has a point that he didn't do enough to make.
1. Much of the difference can be seen in the quality of construction. The Middle Class Manses of 1900 were built like brick shithouses. That they are all still standing in cities all over the Midwest, despite having received minimal upkeep for decades or in some cases being outright abandoned for some time, is a testament to how they were constructed. The homes around here certainly look worse for wear, but they are structurally sound. McMansions, despite their enormous size and matching price tags, absolutely reek of cheapness. As Frank says, they are meant to be "flipped" in ten years. They are just enormous piles of pressed board, plain white paint, plain carpeting, and hollow doors set on flimsy Chinese hinges. With the possible exception of the de rigueur stone countertops in the kitchen, nothing in these homes is designed to last 30 years let alone 100. If you've been in one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's hard to reconcile their high prices with the feeling that it's just a gigantic version of that duplex you rented for a year in college.
2. The old homes, despite being equally prone to show-off ornamentation, had an architectural style. It might not be one that many of us find pleasing or tasteful, but it was a style. McMansions, on the other hand, are stylistically illiterate collages of generations of tacky details: turrets, bay windows, cornices, gables, columns, dormers, chimneys, ornamental brickwork…you name it and the lowest bid contractor will slap it on the flimsy exterior. McMansions are the Michael Bay movies of architecture.
3. While the older homes were very large, they held larger families with more children. In the case of wealthier parts of society around 1900, there was domestic staff around the house as well. The size of the older homes had a functional purpose.
4. The older homes were vertically oriented and fit closely together. Here are a couple of (not great) pictures I snapped to try to illustrate the point. Note that all of the houses in both pictures are, by any definition, exceptionally large. Click to embiggen:
In the first picture in particular you can see that you can reach out a side window and high-five your neighbor in these houses. And here is where I think Frank really misses an important point. The McMansion is not merely stupid, big, and stupid-big, it is purposely designed to waste space. They're two stories to project size, but primarily horizontally oriented – in layman's terms, they sprawl idiotically in every direction. They sit on lots designed not only to set them back from the street but also to keep them a safe distance away from the neighbors. If they don't have moats it is only because zoning boards won't allow it.
5. Finally, the laughable sameness of today's megahomes represents a change. Turn-of-the-Century construction shows that buyers and developers at least bothered to hire a few different architects, build more than three floorplans per development, and paint the exteriors something other than white.
Anywhere in the declining Midwest you can get these old homes for a song. There are no longer enough well-to-do people here – actually, there just aren't enough people, full stop – to support the value of old homes in the city along with the new construction out in the suburbs. They're not always pretty on account of age and neglect, but they have what the cool kids call Charm. Charm is a way of saying that, unlike most of what is built today, every home does not look identical. They are made of actual building materials instead of compressed granite dust, plywood, and bricks you can crush with your hand. If the bankers' homes of 1900 were the expression of the stupidity of the era like McMansions are of today, then the inescapable conclusion is that American stupidity has gotten much more potent in the intervening decades.