Taking a tour of Baltimore with the founder of the 'McMansion Hell' website, Kate Wagner. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
When launching her blog "McMansion Hell" last July, Peabody Institute graduate student Kate Wagner thought it would be like any other blog she had started and stopped within a few weeks. But she was determined to inform her 15 Tumblr followers about why so-called McMansions — oversized homes often made of cheap material and lacking a cohesive design — were bad architecture.
"I really was like, at the time, 'Man, no one does an ugly-house blog that's any good,' so I was just like, 'I'm going to do it,' " Wagner said.
Wagner thought she'd stop after she tired of it, but poking fun at pretentious residential architecture, using photos of homes for sale and her own added snarky commentary, exceeded her expectations.
One of her first posts went viral, Wagner said.
"It just exploded overnight. It was really weird. I don't quite know what happened, and I don't think I ever will," Wagner said.
Since then, "McMansion Hell," with its mocking graphics and memes of houses, indicating off-center windows and other architectural oddities with arrows and text, has drawn more than 50,000 followers on Tumblr. It has become a focus of discussion among architects and architecture enthusiasts, and has become a primary source of income for Wagner, earning her between $2,000 and $3,000 monthly.
The blog has also landed Wagner an invitation to TEDxMidAtlantic, where she gave a talk about McMansions last October, tours and dinners from fans — and most notably, a cease-and-desist letter from online real estate marketplace Zillow for using photos from their website, which has put the parody architecture blog and Wagner even more into the spotlight (Wagner said after getting assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it was determined the photos were fair use. Zillow dropped its threat, and Wagner continues to use the photos).
"In my circle of architects and people I know, 75 percent know of Kate's writing. They have seen it or have read it or laughed at it," said Ian Hoffman, an architect and a professor of the graduate program in acoustics at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where Wagner studies. "It's amazing how quickly her internet footprint has influenced all types of architecture, design and media folks."
But the 23-year-old, who hails from just outside Southern Pines, N.C., is more than just a critic bashing what she refers to as the "drag and drop" homes on the internet.
She's a student, a classical music enthusiast, and an activist — a champion of the preservation of late-modern residential architecture — and she's hoping to give people a way to talk about architecture, with an element of laughter, she said.
"The blog was to give people the language to describe why they hate something, or the language to talk about architecture in general," Wagner said. "It was a matter of empowerment."
Wagner studies architectural acoustics — the study of sound in relation to physical spaces and design — as the result of her dual love of classical music and architecture that started at an early age.
She still plays the violin for fun, but her love of architecture and houses has become her focus. This obsession began around the age of 5, starting with a love of HGTV and looking at houses while riding on the school bus, she said.
"I loved ... just imagining all the people who lived in [those houses] and, you know, thinking about all the houses. I loved all houses indiscriminately," said Wagner.
Her crusade against McMansions began around the age of 12 when the woods near her suburban home — a place where she retreated for solace — were bulldozed, making way for newer structures. Some of them were McMansions, which are typically 3,000-square-foot or larger structures with "cherry-picked" designs that lack balance and consistency.
"The problem with McMansions is they're so far from the human scale," she said. "They're designed almost to the car scale. Because of that, they are uncomfortable, large and wasteful and all these other things that we can critique.
"But it's also the balance of things [like] making sure there's some sort of internal logic, making sure the windows are of a consistent style, making sure the garage isn't half the house," Wagner said. "I know in America the garage is necessary, but I think to a certain extent the garage is a status symbol that just dominates so much of so many upper-middle-class houses to the point where [the question] is, is this a house for a person or a car?"
Her blog was built upon this premise, using photos she found on Zillow to point out defects and unbalanced aspects of houses sold around the country, typically in suburbs, while adding her thoughts about architecture.
"I'm writing about common houses, everyday houses, working- and middle-class houses, which is not commonly studied in architecture," said Wagner, who seeks input from experts and friends in architecture.
"What I think is really interesting is this sort of trying to understand the landscape that's around us. I think that it's the best way to teach people about architecture. … You've gotta teach people with what they have, and this is what they have," she said.
People around the world have been intrigued by Wagner's writing about architecture, interior design and McMansions, which also appears online in real estate and design platforms like Curbed and 99 Percent Invisible.
Hoffman, who led Wagner and six other students through an eight-day tour through three cities in Europe this year to study architectural acoustics at various halls, said he saw signs of Wagner's growing internet fame during the trip.
"In each of these cities, she received free dinner or a free day of touring or ... a free half-day tour guide," Hoffman said. These were people who "had known her [blog] and wanted to meet her. ... They'd invite her to show her around, feed her and show her their cities."
Hoffman said Wagner is a gifted student who is "keen on observing what she sees and has an ability to put it down in a very clear, understandable way" that also elicits the interest of others.
"She is more effective of a communicator when she has her pen than oftentimes in person," Hoffman added.
Wagner's boyfriend, Stephen Thompson, 31, of Charles Village, said it's her "lowbrow sense of humor about highbrow things" that comes through in her writing.
"She's really funny," he said, emphasizing that while some humor seems juvenile, Wagner typically jokes about "very sophisticated stuff."
"When we walk around together, she's always pointing things out that I would have never noticed on my own. I guess she notices things that other people don't notice."
Wagner said the blog has made her life better, bringing more attention to her writings about design and architecture, a field she's thinking of further pursuing after she finishes at Peabody.
"I make a lot more money, which I didn't care about so much, but I do have a lot more people who are interested in the work," Wagner said.
"I can be a bit of a divisive person," she acknowledged.
"People really like or they really don't like the way that I approach things," she said, and there are some who are insulted because she makes fun of things they like.
"They take it personally, but the truth is houses are inanimate objects," Wagner said, adding that she never targets a person. "You have to look at things critically, and that includes architecture."
In Baltimore, where Wagner lives, studies and bikes (she refuses to get a driver's license), McMansions haven't been a big issue, she said. She is enthusiastic about the rowhouses in Fells Point, Mount Vernon, Charles Village and Remington, and the midcentury modern houses in Pikesville.
"I'm so fond of them. They're so amazing, just so cute," she said. "There's just so many individual pieces of Baltimore architecture that I really like."
While the city offers some respite from the world of McMansions, Wagner's not yet done with her exploration of that world.
"I feel like I'm going to be dealing with McMansions until I'm dead. I plan on writing about McMansions until people no longer want to read about them. Lucky for me, I don't think I'm ever running out of source material," said Wagner, though she acknowledged becoming a bit numb after all the attention.
"People send me a house, and I'm like, 'That's not even bad. You don't know how much worse it could get.' I've seen some of the ugliest and most bizarre houses, and at this point, I'm like, 'I can't even laugh at this anymore. This isn't crazy enough for me.' "
Title: Owner of "McMansion Hell" blog
Residence: Station North
Birthplace: San Antonio
Education: Studied music composition at University of North Carolina at Greensboro; current graduate student studying architectural acoustics at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Career: Freelance writer for outlets including Curbed and 99 Percent Invisible, where she discusses architecture and interior design.
Bragging rights: Her blog McMansion Hell has gone viral for its humorous commentary on pretentious architecture. She did a TEDXMidAtlantic talk on McMansions in October 2016.
Personal: With a passion for classical music, she plays the violin and the viola (and has been flirting with the guitar). She is an amateur botanist and the communications director for the Baltimore chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.