The other day I was rummaging through a local architectural salvage yard when, way out in one corner, past the rows of forlorn toilets and racks sagging with old sinks, I came across a depressing sight. It was a literal mountain of fancy whirlpool tubs, each of which some home buying couple had once considered absolutely indispensable to their master bathroom. In reality, these tubs had been unused, unloved, and finally ripped out and given away. And here they were, a moldering monument to a silly but ubiquitous fad that’s still with us today.
Dubious building fads are certainly nothing new. In tract houses of the 1920s, for instance, a separate breakfast room was deemed a must, even if many of them were barely big enough to fit a table, let alone four chairs. Upscale ranch houses of the 1950s, on the other hand, frequently boasted an indoor barbecue, a patently impractical feature that was almost immediately covered over to net more counter space.
During the technology-mad 1960s, home intercoms were the deluxe gimmick of choice. Visitors were supposed to announce themselves at the front entrance, and through the miracle of the transistor, their greeting would be transmitted as an unintelligible garble to the “master station” inside--usually located next to the front door, where one might just as easily have spoken to the visitor face to face.
Topnotch tract houses of the 70s offered buyers the “conversation pit”--a sunken area ringed with upholstered seating, and often equipped with a fireplace as well. Here, guests would presumably chat it up while lounging around in polyester suits. Alas, nothing kills natural conversation like being urged to engage in it, and the conversation pit barely outlived the Carter administration.
I could go on citing such examples--cavernous master bedrooms, gigantic master baths, living room wet bars, multiple fireplaces--but you get the point. What makes home buyers covet such features--often at no small cost--when in retrospect they seem so obviously impractical? Some people blame developers for pushing extravagant gimmicks to spur sales. If this is the case, the strategy has generally been been right on target. For decades prior to the Great Recession, they were rewarded for peddling gimmicks by selling gobs and gobs of houses. Given this history, it seems that home buyers are at least complicit in creating demand for useless bells and whistles.
In fact, until the housing market finally collapsed under its own weight, we material-mad consumers were still lusting after restaurant-style ranges and refrigerators, dual dishwashers, three- and four-car garages, and yes, even those ever-more-ostentatious bathrooms with their whirlpool tubs. When it comes to buying houses, we’re as susceptible to gimmicks as we are in buying all those other overwrought consumer items we’ve been snapping up by the armload.
One would hope that our recent economic troubles would sharpen our discernment for what is useful and what is not. If it doesn’t, some of us will be finding great deals on used whirlpool tubs.