Teardown Fatigue

Winnetka, Illinois is fighting back against McMansions–and not having much success. Winnetka is an affluent suburb north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. As it happens, it’s next to my home town of Wilmette, which is plagued by the same problem: massive and ungainly houses are being dropped into mid- and early-twentieth-century neighborhoods, disrupting the their cohesiveness, blocking out the sun, and generally sucking the soul out of mature bedroom communities. One endangered Winnetka house is a 1910 lakefront home built for John L. Hamilton, a partner of the Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins. Popular outcry probably won’t be enough to save even this historical home from getting super sized.  North Shore residents are well known for their sense of entitlement–just ask any beleaguered waiter or school teacher or my wife–but their assertiveness stops at their neighbors’ property lines.

Winnetka wants to gently persuade developers to take it easy on the "fake Palladian windows, bulging turrets and oversize stone balusters," according to a Tribune
report. At least one Winnetka resident would like curtains on her neighbor’s bedroom windows. But other suburbs that have proposed design guidelines have seen them largely ignored. Peter Wall, a North Shore realtor who maintains a hit list of homes ripe for teardowns, shrugs at the voluntary guidelines Winnetka’s taste police have proposed. He says, "We look at what we can build on the property and what we could sell it for, and that dictates what happens to it." So there.

In addition to an exuberant "if it looks expensive, let’s tack it on" exterior design aesthetic, McMansions offer spiffy kitchens and up-to-date wiring. The neighbors’ smoldering resentment comes for free. Mid-century modern homes are especially vulnerable to teardowns because the large lot served as a kind of negative space complementing the clean, simplified, and carefully-scaled house. Modernist houses also date back to a time when the common belief was that the most important element in a house is the people who live in it. Now the most important elements are the things inside the house. The starting point for designing a McMansion is the owner’s massive furniture and electronics. It takes a lot of square feet to enclose them and, more critically, a big roof to put a lid on years of high-income consumption. That’s why McMansions tend to have crazy roofs with all sorts of bump outs and dormers and such. Otherwise, they’d look like the Metrodome.

How much room does a family need? I’ve heard 2400 square feet is plenty of space for a family of four. My family of four lives in a 2400 square foot house, and it seems like enough room, except when the Thomas the Tank Engine track pieces are scattered all over the place.  But one day our mid-century modern won’t seem so sensible when we have two North Shore teenagers in it.  Maybe by then some of the McMansions will be ripe for teardowns.

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