ARE NEW HOUSES designed to be shown off but not to be lived in?
That question popped into my mind when The Sun published an article recently about The Preserve, a Howard County subdivision with gargantuan homes, some with as much as 20,000 square feet of floor space. The article could have as easily been written about similar new developments in Anne Arundel.
When I mentioned my reservations to a few of my colleagues, they treated me as if I were out of my mind.
"Who would mind living in a house with five bathrooms?" asked one, mockingly. "I certainly would not," she said, answering her own question.
"I don't care what people do with their money as long as they earned it honestly," said another.
Their ridicule aside, this trend of building oversized houses troubles me.
These homes, some with as much as a quarter-acre of floor space, require large lots. Finding two- and three-acre lots means carving up more of the county's fields and forests for subdivisions.
This quest flies in the face of the efforts by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, County Executive John Gary and other political leaders to focus new residential construction in areas with adequate infrastructure. (See related letter at right.)
I can't imagine that builders are tripping over themselves to build these "monster mansions" on in-fill lots in Pasadena or Severna Park. More than likely they are looking at the farms and waterfront properties of South County.
Building subdivisions of these large houses will aggravate residential sprawl. Aside from the troubling environmental implications, the houses themselves are usually more impressive to look at than to live in.
Most are imposing two-story structures; a number have third-floor rooms. Some sport turrets. Virtually all have bay windows and imposing facades of stone and brick. A three-car garage is a must.
The homes are laden with expensive features from bathtubs equipped with Jacuzzis to large built-in refrigerators.
While they may show well during a realty agent's open house, they often have features that are impractical for living. The number of rooms and the spaces within them have little to do with the way the occupants spend their time.
Rope off the living room
Often these houses have large living rooms with sweeping vistas, yet most American families no longer spend much time in a living room. In fact, most living rooms should be roped off and viewed as relics from an earlier age, much the way elegantly furnished rooms in Annapolis' William Paca House are displayed.
Virtually all of these new houses have exceptionally large kitchens with acres of counter space, usually fashioned of granite or other fancy materials. The kitchens come equipped with every convenience, from professional stoves with six burners, two ovens and gas-fired grills to sinks with faucets that produce instant boiling water.
These elaborate kitchens are responsible for a large proportion of the cost of a house. Yet as a society, we are eating more take-out food that requires only warming in a microwave.
'Scarlett, my coat'?
The large entrance with a grand staircase and 30-foot-high clerestory windows is another distinguishing feature contained in most of these houses.
While Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler would feel at home, these entryways too often lack a coat closet.
What's really surprising is to discover that some of the people who own these 20-room edifices are childless couples who usually end up living in just a fraction of the house.
Why get worked up over these houses? If this is what people desire, shouldn't builders cater to them?
That is a fair question. Although few of us can afford these houses, they set the standard for the homes we can afford.
The result is that far too many new subdivisions are filled with ostentatious houses that look good when completed, but won't be quite so alluring years from now.
Outshining the Joneses
The overall design emphasis is to outshine the Joneses, instead of using restraint and creating a neighborhood of compatible appearances.
Philip Langdon, writing in the October 1995 issue of Progressive Architecture, compared these houses to the 1959 Cadillac, the most baroque example of the big-finned automobiles Detroit was producing at the time.
"Nothing like that automotive monster is manufactured anymore because it was an absurdity on wheels, expressing the fashions of the times and not much else," he opined.
How many of the houses now being constructed are but 1959 Cadillacs with kitchens and bathrooms?
The saving grace is that Cadillacs can be junked. We will be living with these homes for decades to come.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 2/02/97