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February 13, 2009

Big Ugly Houses and my recession-provoked “populist rage”

After my most recent post about some big ugly houses in Walnut Creek and Pleasanton, a reader accused me of being jealous and spiteful, and then of being intolerant of well-off people who incorporate “all THEIR dreams, THEIR plans, and THEIR design ideals” into what I’m labeling ugly and excessive residential architecture.

Dear reader, thanks for the perspective.


The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the homes I’ve highlighted are eyesores. In fact, on some larger ideological plane, they are even more of a blight than acres of mass-produced tract homes. Here’s why: These big ugly houses are built and purchased by people who obviously have earned—or come into—enough money and power (or had enough money and power before the recession hit) to have a choice. Actually, someone who, for example, can afford a $28,000 monthly mortgage, which is what you’d need for one of my recently featured homes, has a lot of choices, certainly a lot more than the people who populate those mass-produced tract homes.


Those in this high-income bracket could choose to pay for some top, high-end architectural advice—advice that would steer them to artistry and innovation in design and construction. And away from Big Ugly House aesthetic, which, the more that I think of it, strikes me as both dated and excessive in a non-ironic ‘80s way.

It’s like the owners of these homes are still caught up in that fervor for lavish displays of wealth and ostentation that, pop culture-wise, we saw on display in cheesy primetime soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. Homes that I have thus far featured in Big Ugly Houses harken back to the Ronald Regan/Linda Evans/Joan Collins/J.R. Ewing era of big hair and shoulder pads. Looking at these homes, I immediately hear Robin Leach, host of that quintessential ‘80s show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, oozing, in his Brit--tabloid-sensationalist voice, about the glories of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Aren’t the ‘80s so, like, two decades ago? Also, in a post-GEC (Global Economic Crisis) world, the Zeitgeist has shifted. Sorry to throw in this big German word, but the German language does have a way of summing up those big themes in the human condition. Zeitgeist, roughly translated, means “spirit of the times.”


And the spirit of the times right now is saying that lavish displays of wealth are no longer fashionable or trendy, whether it’s choosing to build and live in a Big Ugly House or buying $800 Jimmy Choo shoes. These houses and those shoes are so pre-September 2008.

Yes, the commenter who accused me of jealousy and spitefulness had a point. I am jealous. I am spiteful. These are not pleasant qualities to admit to, and I’m sure that some of you don’t want to read my vitriol.


At the same time, I am merely offering yet another voice to the groundswell of frustration and even rage that’s rising up in this country.


While I’m railing against Big Ugly Houses, “a new kind of street warfare is breaking out,” says the New York Post. This warfare is directed against the Wall Street titans who derailed our financial system, and it consists of corps of agitators, making the rounds of suburban mansions and co-ops of Wall Street bankers and CEOs. The protesters are chanting into bullhorns and waving signs to harangue these former rulers of our universe for their errors in the housing crisis.

“I’m afraid there are rich people all around the country who are about to suffer similar social self-immolation because they don’t understand that the rules of privileged society have undergone a radical transformation,” writes conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times. “But now, after the TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus package, the Fed rescue packages and various other federal interventions, rich people no longer get to set their own rules.”


Frank Rich, another Times columnist, adds that “the tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than [Tom] Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus.”


Rich goes on to say that Americans are fed up with displays of arrogance, “whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican. Voters turned on Sarah Palin not just because of her manifest unfitness for office but because her claims of being a regular hockey mom were contradicted by her Evita shopping sprees. John McCain’s sanctification of Joe the Plumber (himself a tax delinquent) never could be squared with his inability to remember how many houses he owned. A graphic act of entitlement also stripped naked that faux populist John Edwards.


Rich assures me that my, and perhaps your, revulsion, frustration, and rage isn’t just “mindless class hatred.”

He quotes the president who said of his fellow citizens: “We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success. But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.”

I said something similar, about not begrudging anyone for achieving success, in a response to that commenter who didn’t like my attack on Big Ugly Houses. This response referred to my recent visit to what I considered to be a big, beautiful house—though at roughly 4,000 square feet its size is modest by Big House standards.


This house is in the Oakland hills, which probably has more Big Ugly Houses (built to replace those destroyed in the catastrophic fire of 1991) per acre than anywhere else in the Bay Area. The house I visited was also a replacement for a victim of the firestorm. The new home’s owner/builder is creative, innovative guy with a strong sense of aesthetics and respect for his community. He worked hard with his neighbors to make sure his home fit in, design-wise, with those on his block. I added that it doesn’t hurt that this is a super green house.


“While touring this house, I felt envy, but a good kind of envy,” I wrote in my response to the commenter. “Admiration and respect for someone who used his hard-earned money to build him and his family a home that is a true design showcase--beautiful, tasteful, livable, and, certainly filled with high-quality materials. But despite location and value, there was nothing overly showy about it.”


Meanwhile, here’s something of an update on the Big, Ugly Houses mentioned in my most recent post. There was an 8,000-square foot sprawling hilltop home selling for $5.4 million near Sugar Loaf Open Space in Walnut Creek, and the other, a 14,000-square-foot 7-bedroom, 9.5-bath monster in Pleasanton’s Ruby Hills selling for $10 million. They are still for sale if anyone’s in the market. They’ve been available for sale anywhere from more than two to three months. Maybe they are Big White Elephants.

The rough economy is also certainly a factor. It turns out that the high-end real estate market has also hit the skids, with sales of homes above $5 million have all but frozen since November. SFGate.com’s On the Block blog reported earlier this week that its writers could only find one house priced over $5 million that has sold over the last three months, and this one was in Atherton.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're saying we should protest outside these homes. These people didn't do anything wrong. That commenter was right. They just wanted to live according to their dreams. They worked hard for their money. And now they have to deal with creeps like you and an angry mob. you are jealous and spiteful.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:10, youre in idiot. Soccer Mom's making a good point aobut how cultural attitudes have changed. Those people who live in this big houses aren't admirable anymore. They're kind of pathetic and gross.

Anonymous said...

Neiman Marcus, the epitome of gross consumerism, will become the magnet store for owners of "big ugly houses"

Mom's exhausted said...

Anon, 4:10pm, Write a better article, and leave Soccer Mom alone. The people may be living according to their dreams, yet there is no proof that they worked hard for their money.

Ostentatious was a great description. Almost like they are in their own world, and not a part of ours.

I hardly think that anyone would read this blog and decide to protest outside of someone's residence. I didn't perceive that from Soccer Mom's writing. That's absurd!

Anonymous said...

My heart bleeds for the owners of these monstrosities, getting attacked by a blogger. And I get choked up reading about how the people who built those tacky $5million-plus horrors aren't able to sell them. They benefited the most from the good times seems only fair they should suffer like the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I took a peek at the comps out of the northgate area. One of those mostrosities finally went. DOM (days on market) was over 400 days.

Asking price 2.5 Million
Selling price 1.5 Million

Surprised it sold at all.

You are absolutely right. If you are going to drop 10 Million on a house, recognize you are not a designer and have a trained professional do it for you. No sense in displaying all of your faults to all of the neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Love the comparison to the 80s! OMG haven't thought about Dynasty and Dallas in ages. But it's so true. These home builders are caught in a time warp.