Architecture is a peculiar thing. At its best, it embodies the architect’s (and presumably the client’s) taste, ideals, and concepts of how human beings should relate to their environment. At its worst, it encases the hapless inhabitant in a tepid mediocrity imposed by the current demands of the resale market as dictated by an unctuously tanned real estate agent whose priorities revolve less around the pleasure a given property may provide than around its selling points five or 10 years hence. We, the homeowners, are left alone to decide for ourselves which of these modes of architecture we can actually live in: the rarefied or the readily resold.
The “white elephants” of Newport, R.I., always furnish a propitious object lesson in this regard. American author Henry James famously applied the epithet to the immense limestone palaces that cropped up on the manicured plots of the seaside resort in the late 19th century. James had in mind the ancient Siamese kings’ tradition of bestowing on disfavored subjects one of these sacred beasts, which gift often resulted in bankruptcy, the maintenance of said creatures proving ruinous to citizens of modest means. The offspring of such deft practitioners as Richard Morris Hunt and McKim, Mead, and White, Newport pachyderms of the mortar and stone variety remain pure examples of an architecture that underscored grace of form, symmetry, proportion, and the need for a minimum staff of 40. Conceived as monuments to the egos and checkbooks of Oelrichs, Belmonts, and Goelets (none of whose household budgets shied from the expense of retaining two bewigged footmen whose sole task was to open and close one-ton bronze front doors), these cottages were meant to be capacious stages on which life was lived as a DeMille-like pageant, thanks to the availability of cheap domestic labor. As they began, so have they ended—as museums that failed to adapt to the 20th century’s less self-conscious lifestyle.
By contrast, these mausoleums’ modern counterparts may be too adaptable. Plenty of homes of princely dimension are still being built; yet their owners, despite admirable aesthetic ambitions, often succumb to the mistaken idea that size equals grandeur. I recently visited one such hapless home—an impressive pile, totaling nearly 30,000 square feet of living space, as the owner discreetly informed me. The principal rooms were enormous—the foyer a towering atrium, the bedroom suites unfolding enfilades of limitless length, the dining room a veritable stadium equipped for epic gustation. There were three full-service bars on three levels (a provision I laud), two commercial-grade patio grilling stations (also commendable), a theater, two game rooms, and an entire floor dedicated to offices for family members, including a mail room (no home should be without one). But, as we gazed across the paneled expanses of the living room, it was clear that the owner, convinced that size mattered, had built beyond his depth: A few sofas (the largest he could find) floated aimlessly as lifeboats in the empty space before the mantel, while in the distance, a mahogany table and chairs dotted the barren horizon. The owner didn’t know how to fill the void. The imperative to build large had not only set him adrift, but it had also pushed the walls of the home to the very edge of the modest suburban acreage, such that the motor court could be measured with a yardstick and the poor sliver of infinity pool clung to its embarrassing strip of hillside as though by friction.
The prejudice is a personal one, of course; but gracious living demands that indoor spaces be in proportion to the outdoors. A large house needs a vista not only on which to look out, but also one from which the occupants can gaze back on their home and, with luck, find something in its lines to appreciate. While number of bedrooms and total square footage seem to drive the current marketplace, the desire for true breathing room may emerge in the decades ahead as the defining characteristic of next-generation “hot properties,” and the mall-like monoliths that now darken the streets of affluent suburbs will send buyers scurrying. Until then, James’ white elephants, far from extinct, remain alive and well.