In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger ain’t always better--at least not when it comes to our houses.
My friend's dot-com millions bought him
a home much like this one.
This truth became even more obvious to me than after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower middle class suddenly became a dotcom millionaire in the late Nineties. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community just outside Silicon Valley. Now, you’d think this would be the proverbial dream come true for most people. But like Citizen Kane at Xanadu, my friend always seemed uncomfortable shuffling around all those echoey formal rooms in his so-called “home”. Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed, or to a tiny storage room that had the size and feel of a normal tract house bedroom—probably much like the one he'd grown up in.
Not surprisingly, this made me wonder anew about the use or value of all the rest of all the huge spaces that made up the bulk of the place. The problem with really big rooms is that we human beings are naturally ill at ease inhabiting them. Our primitive brains still feel more secure, and hence more comfortable, in spaces we can traverse in a few steps.
In the past, the huge public rooms of mansions served mainly to flaunt their owner’s wealth and good taste--though these attributes don’t necessarily go together. Yet even the wealthiest masters of such houses carried on day-to-day life in a much more modest suite of rooms elsewhere in the place. Living in some huge, drafty hall, regardless of how sumptuous the decoration, was no more comfortable then than it is now.
I grew up in an old, 900 square foot Colonial Bungalow.
The real one was demolished long ago, but this house is
pretty close. Although we were a family of five,
it never occurred to us to feel crowded.
Even now, in the wake of the Great Recession, Americans are only grudgingly relinquishing our thirty-year obsession with bloated houses, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before. Around the mid-nineteenth century, houses of every class, from mansions to worker’s cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from under eight feet during Colonial times to twelve feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated. Victorian kitchens alone grew into complex warrens of three or four rooms. Yet, rather than making their owners happier, these vast houses instead provoked a backlash—especially among women, who typically got stuck with the job of keeping them up. This disenchantment with bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early twentieth century, with their credo of smaller-and-simpler-is-better.
I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in such a house—a 900 square foot Colonial bungalow—and it never crossed our minds that we were crowded or deprived in any way. In fact, my family remembers this little house more fondly than any other, regardless of size.
We could learn a great deal from these downsized bungalows of a century ago, if only we found the wisdom to Think Small once in awhile.