Sunday, November 12, 2006

McMansions and McJews

There is a phenomenon that is happening all over Chicago, and in many other places as well, where people build elaborate homes on small lots, thus leaving little room for landscaping. These homes are ubiquitous in Lincolnwood and Skokie, and are being bought almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews. A critical definition of a McMansion is the following: “McMansion (n.)-A pejorative term for a particular style of housing that, as its name suggest, is both large like a mansion, and relatively (compared to real mansions) cheap and widespread like McDonald’s fast-food restaurants. McMansions are characterized by traditional features without an understanding of those styles’ underlying logic and purpose.”

Are McFrums a little McCrazy for buying McMansions? Are McMansion communities becoming the trailer parks of the wealthy? I think not. Over time, I believe these homes will go up in value and will be recognized for the unique turn-of-the-century genre that they are. I personally find McMansions a bit much, and would rather live in some other type of home, but I recognize how subjective preferences and tastes can differ. My own preferences have been influenced by an interview a relative of mine gave to a design magazine a few years ago.

He said, “A McMansion is like street theater. It ignores its immediate environment, abandons any idea of decorum or appropriateness and, in taking its message to the street, interrupts your day and aggressively asserts its own agenda, right in your face. For example, ‘‘don’t be fooled by these other houses in this neighborhood; you really are in France, stupid, and this is, indeed, Versailles.’” A McMansion says that Versailles can be next to a Tudor mansion, which can be next to a Windsor castle. “It’s like Halloween-everyone in costume, in their own reality, but at the same party.” It says, “In a more perfect world, I would truly be king and live in this Tudor castle, so why wait?”

He emphasized in the interview that the front door of a McMansion is your welcome mat. It’s your old-time Loretta Young entrance. It screams, “You have arrived!’’ The raison detre of any McMansion is to elicit the biggest ‘oooooh!’ from your guests the second they arrive on your doorstep, before they even come inside. Desired response? "Oh, honey, I’m sure we’ve got the wrong house; this is obviously the French embassy." In response to the question, “What place does a McMansion have in the scheme of modern architecture?’’ He said, “It is form following function, the function being to accommodate one’s psychological needs within a physical structure. Since it is unabashedly artificial, it is one of the least pretentious genres of architecture.” How’s that for an elitist twist?

I believe the issue of McMansion is similar in structure to the question of fancy sheitels and designer clothes. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being farputzed, and somewhat in your face. Orthodox Jews are not Italians who build courtyards within courtyards, so as to hide the glitz from the public. In any event, whether or not one considers such homes tasteful and appropriate, I feel it’s a mistake to attribute any moral or spiritual fault to their owners. Jewish life is on a learning curve. Many families came from areas of Eastern Europe that were not known for their avant-garde sensibility in design and decoration. Everyone is rowing as fast as they can, and if Orthodoxy does not meet the standards of shabby chic WASP sensibilities, it’s no tragedy.

I believe the reason there are no original modernist McMansions is not due to any deep spiritual considerations. A modernist home involves a risk, would stick out even more in a neighborhood like Skokie, and requires a very strong sense of design. Jews who own McMansions generally have large families, are busy in their work, and have other things on their mind than to make original architectural statements. (For a contrary view, see the comments here 10/26/06.)

In secular Jewish society aesthetic disagreements or more correctly aesthetic preferences that are seen as unacceptable are treated much more harshly. People take aesthetic decisions much more seriously. Walk in to any high end design place and watch couples conferring over some object. You’d think they are deciding whether to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Orthodox society is generally more forgiving when it comes to decoration and appearances. There is still a feeling that simplicity and modesty are virtues, and therefore it is improper to complain about the quality of the art or interior decoration. Compared to the hardscrabble aesthetics of secular Jewish life, I find the Orthodox approach refreshing.


At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Ploney said...

There actually are a few modernist "McMansions" built/lived in by frum people, but the ones I know of are in Chicago, not Skokie.

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

I am in the Boston area, where we have many "real" mansions and more and more McMansions. I will admit to really disliking McMansions, mostly because they seem so wasteful (e.g. heating a three story tall cathedral entrance is exceptionally wasteful, and most McMs have at least a two story entrance.) When there are real and "Mc" Mansions side by side, I think almost anyone would choose the real one as more attractive. (Around here, large older houses tend to be Victorians with huge character.)

Right now, in my area, if one wants and can afford a large, new house, a Colonial style McMansion is really one's only choice unless one works with an architect on a piece of land outside a subdivision. To be fair, for big families these houses can be very well laid-out; the bedrooms are large, there are plenty of bathrooms throughout the house, and the kitchen and dining area are usually one large room. But I think all those features could be had in something other than Yet Another Look-At-How-Much-Money-I-Have Colonial.

Another thing to consider is that these houses are often very poorly constructed, using cheap materials and then slapping on an expensive finish to make them look nice. (Hm, sort of like some people say is what happens with *people* in the wealthy Orthodox community -- sharp dressing and faux-rich "etiquette" on the outside, covering up a realy lack of middos. For the record, I'm not Orthodox...)

At 4:05 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

It is my understanding that the construction of the McMansions in Skokie and Lincolnwood is good or maybe even first rate. I therefore omitted that point from my definition. As to the midos (character) of wealthy Orthodox Jews it is hard to generalize on the basis of a small sample. I do know that many, many wealthy Orthodox Jews in Chicago are wonderful baalei tzdakah. Every city should be so fortunate to have such charitable gevirim (rich people)

At 7:42 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

EJ --

It's good to know that your local wealthy Jews know how to get their money's worth from a homebuilder ;)

I certainly didn't mean that *all* wealthy Jews are lacking in middos, just that it's very easy to lose the middos when paying obsessive attention to appearances (see R'Harry's post today about shaitels, for example...)

I would hope that also, unlike here, the OJ families that move into McMansions actually have enough money to furnish them. There are a lot of half-empty McMansions in my area, because the owners can barely pay the mortgage. (I know this because one of the things they skimp on is curtains!)

At 1:10 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

If we have come to the point where McMansions are a suitable topic of discussion, I query whether there are McMansions in Yehupitz??

At 3:31 PM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

You're spot on about the McMansion thing. Although I've seen at least 3 or 4 homes in the devonshire area where they are doing the Prairie style look, so at least stylistically it is not the typical McMansion.

Of course there are at least 2 frum builders that I know of that cater to this McMansion appetite, so...

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quiet Ann said:

I certainly didn't mean that *all* wealthy Jews are lacking in middos, just that it's very easy to lose the middos when paying obsessive attention to appearances (see R'Harry's post today about shaitels, for example...)

Dr. E says:
To me, what Evanston Jew is describing is a phenomenon that represents a lack of tzniyus. Having big ostentatious homes and the antecedent attitudes that lead to their being built often are a symptom of a lifestyle that is not tzanuah. Which is ironic as the occupants would often be considered by the community to be the paragons of tzniyus, based on their dress and grooming.

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes you think Orthodox Jews are more prone to buying McMs than other people?

At 3:02 AM, Blogger Tobie said...

I don't think that people impute bad middot to McMansion-ers on basis of bad architecture- from what I know of Skokie, it's plenty ugly without any help. I think that most people are annoyed by the idea that a religious person would build any large, ostentatious home, whose purpose is clearly ornamental rather than strictly utilitarian. Building a giant home is generally felt to be a self-indulgent waste of money that could be better spent on useful things (like charity). Like your examples of fancy sheitels and designer clothes, I think that anything that is specifically intended to get an "ooooooh" out of neighbors is missing the boat tzniut-wise, no matter its technical halachic status.

That said, I would prefer not to generalize as to the middot of the people who build these houses. Most of them, I am sure, use the space either for their own families, for hospitality, or for communal needs, and building a house in a style that is popular is only sensible investing. And furthermore, there is no issur against using one's money to make yourself happy, and if people truly enjoy their monstrosities (I have never seen the charm in Skokie's McMansions), then they should be free to do so without running up against asthetic snobbery.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 3:35 suggests that McMansions show a lack of tznius because they’re ostentatious. tobie agrees, but adds the additional fault of being “a self-indulgent waste of money that could be better spent on useful things (like charity).” I have two thoughts. If we’re going to moralize, I would suggest the underlying vice is gaaveh, self-aggrandizement or a sort of grandiosity. Its corresponding virtue would be humility or ahnaavah (sp?). How the two are related is an interesting question I don’t have an answer to. The thrust of my own essay was that I did not think it was appropriate to moralize and there’s enough to be said at the aesthetic level.

anonymous 6:11…I don’t believe Orthodox Jews are more prone to buying McMansions than others. What I meant to say is that the McMansions that are being built in Skokie and Lincolnwood are being bought by Orthodox Jews. In the non-Orthodox parts of Skokie, there are no McMansions nor are there any in Evanston.

tobie…I don’t agree that Skokie is plenty ugly; certainly where the Jewish community lives is a very nice area. I also believe that calling them monstrosities is too harsh.


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