Why We Love Huge Mansions (but those "McMansions" ...not so much)

Top: Biltmore Estate
Bottom: A well-designed French
Renaissance styled home
If you get a kick out of looking at all kinds of houses (like I do), if you go out of your way to find great houses when you travel, then you know what a mansion is.

And if you pay any attention at all to the design/decorating and building/real estate media, then you've almost certainly heard the pejorative term McMansion.

There are as many definitions of the term McMansion as there are design critics, but they're generally large, new homes, usually rather poorly designed, and often too big for the lots they’re on.

Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House books, calls them "Starter Castles", because McMansions can also be small homes.  Small homes that aren’t content to have the appropriate style or character that small homes should have, and instead try with all their might to look like big homes.

So it’s hard to say exactly what a McMansion is, but I think I know a “McMansion” when I see it, and you probably do too…or do you?

Big Doesn’t Always Mean Bad

There's a lot of disdain out there for anything that smacks of wealth, and a lot of derision gets piled upon some very large but very wonderful American homes - just because they're big.

But just because a house is a mansion doesn’t mean it’s a McMansion.

There's a very big, and very important difference between the two.

“Mansions” have a long and important role in American Architectural History.  Mansions have frequently been the laboratories for the development of American Residential Architecture, from the Georgian plantation homes of the Virginia Tidewater to the late 20th Century Modernism of Richard Meier.

Mansions introduced new Architectural styles to America.  Late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century east coast Mansions are the ancestors to whom many well-designed smaller homes can trace their lineage.

And while many of these great American homes are very large – extremely large in some cases – they set the stage for hundreds of thousands of much smaller middle-class versions to follow.

The existence of these important achievements is testament to the dedication of the patrons of American Architecture to create the finest homes possible.  They've earned our respect.

So before you too casually call any large house a McMansion, let’s take a look at some American mansions that helped create the rich architectural history of this country.

Top: Gamble House
Bottom: a classic California suburban
Craftsman bungalow home
Biltmore Estate - Ashville, NC

Biltmore is the largest privately-owned house in America with 250 rooms covering 175,000 square feet of space.

Designed by famed Architect Richard Morris Hunt and constructed between 1889 and 1895 by George W. Vanderbilt, it’s the quintessential example of Châteauesque style, based on French Renaissance architecture of the Loire Valley.

"Châteauesque" is an appropriate Architectural style for massive homes like Biltmore; translating the style to smaller homes is a difficult task.

But a broad definition of French Renaissance style has been very successfully translated to smaller houses throughout America.

The Gamble House – Pasadena, CA

David and Mary Gamble commissioned brothers Charles and Henry Greene in 1908 to design this landmark example of American Arts and Crafts style Architecture.  Widely regarded as an Architectural masterpiece, the Gamble house helped spread Craftsman and Bungalow Style Architecture throughout America.

Craftsman and Bungalow homes are found in almost every American city founded before 1900 and the style translates perfectly to small homes. There's a Craftsman revival of sorts going on in our practice right now - we've been asked by a handful of clients over the last few years to look at the appropriateness of the style for their homes.

Top: Westover Plantation
Bottom: strict symmetry in a newer
Georgian-styled home in New Albany, Ohio
Westover Plantation – near Williamsburg, VA

American mansions aren’t just 19th and 20th- century creations.  Some were even built before America was founded. Westover Plantation, on the James River in eastern Virginia, was the Byrd family’s mansion and was built around 1730.

Westover is Tidewater Georgian architecture, a style adapted from the Georgian homes and buildings of the American Colonist’s native England.

Georgian style is characterized by simple forms, strict symmetry, and well-crafted details. It became popular in America after the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930’s.  Many pre-WWII neighbors are sprinkled with well-proportioned Georgian homes.

Westover and other 18th century Georgian mansions influenced the design of hundreds of thousands of smaller homes; the Georgian style remains very popular today.

Stan Hywet Hall – Akron, Ohio

63,500 square feet of brick, sandstone, copper and slate make up the home of F.A. Seiberling in Akron, Ohio.  Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., travelled extensively in England, visiting great Tudor homes for inspiration.

Seiberling’s mansion was just one of many massive homes built in the Tudor Revival Style, a favorite of the wealthy in the early 20th century.

Tudor Revival style was also wildly popular in the first-ring suburbs of America’s largest cities, many of which are still sprinkled with these sturdy brick-walled and slate-roofed homes.

Top: Stan Hywet Hall
Bottom: a handsome Tudor Revival
style home in Cleveland, Ohio
Good Design is Good Design, Regardless of the Size of the House

At RTA Studio we love finding new ways of getting more living in smaller homes.  We find that when we focus on quality of life in a home design, instead of quantity of space, homes get a bit smaller – and a lot better.

But that doesn’t mean we find nothing of value in large(r) homes; it does mean we distinguish between good large homes and bad ones.

Home style and size alone don’t determine whether it’s a Mansion or a McMansion.  What really matters is the quality of the design.

And I do get a kick out of that.

Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio.

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