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Conspicuous Consumption



“In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large ‘mass-produced’ dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly imagined exterior and interior design.” — Wikipedia

Somewhere on the edge of Agincourt, perhaps within sight of the urban fringe, there is likely to be an example of the late 20th century species called the McMansion. The southern outskirts of my own city has several, most of them interchangeable with their cousins across America. Products of the housing boom of the ’80s and ’90s, fewer were built after the market crash around 2008. Several websites are watching as these architectural dinosaurs reach an age when normal deferred maintenance will require a new roof, re-windowing, or energy updating. Let the fun begin.

To learn more, I recommend a visit to McMansion Hell or Homes of the Rich; the latter currently features a 24,000 monstrosity in Indiana. Here is one of my favorites, simply because it is the “weekend” home of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (annotated for your amusement):

I’ve been reminiscing this week about the trip a friend and I made of the British Isles last year. Yes, we necessarily visited a few houses of the 19th and early 20th century rich-and-famous, places like “Blackwell” on the shore of Lake Windermere or “Hillhouse” in the distant Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh. And, yes, these homes are almost obscenely large for single-family occupancy. Their redemption lies in one simple characteristic: each is an architecturally distinguished design that has stood the test of a century’s critical attention; they are worthy of our attention despite their size. Their craftsmanship was generally impeccable; the cohesiveness of home and furnishings, the product of a single designer’s mind.

Wealth, however, has not always equated with size; the height of the front door or the number of dormers and turrets are not a barometer of your stock portfolio. And the example (again from our 2018 trip) that came to mind is the home of W. J. Bassett-Lowke at Northampton, better known by its address, #78 Derngate.

If the Bassett-Lowke name seems familiar it may be that your hobby is model railroading, because the family manufactured trains, model ships, and other similar “toys”, in quotation marks because they aren’t always bought by or even for children. The home at #78 was bought for W. J. and his new wife as a wedding present, a nondescript house of 1815 remodeled during 1916-1917 by Scottish architect C. R. Mackintosh.

From the street, the only clue to the hand of “Toshie”, as he was known, is the front door, which merely hints at the wonders awaiting within. And despite the family’s probable wealth, the interior volumes are modest, indeed, and not simply because the project was undertaken during the height of Britain’s involvement with the World War.

The modesty of its interior space is more than compensated in two ways: 1) the inventive manipulation of those spaces within such cramped dimensions (the house is barely twenty feet wide) and #2) the enrichment of practically every surface with paneling, stenciling, stained glass (for borrowed light), light fixtures themselves, and carpets.

The degree of the designer’s attention is comparable to large homes by Frank Lloyd Wright from the same years — say the nearly contemporary house in Los Angeles for Aline Barnsdall — but the similarity ends there. For this is an exercise in proto-Art Deco hardly known in the United States. But what struck me in hindsight is simply this: to the casual passerby, #78 Derngate belies its qualitative attention to detail, content to be something unknown today, an example of inconspicuous consumption.

Take that, Thorsten Veblen.

1 Comment

  1. Gray Sailor says:

    The comments on the Devos monstrosity are priceless. The stew that is the house is not. She/they literally went into some ‘hampton/summer home/southern living’ catalog/magazine and tore pages out of everything they liked and the poor contractor (well – he WAS poor – before this house) said “sure, we can do that!”. I’ll finish this comment with an appropriately banal ‘lol’.

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