Is Bigger Really Better?

Not if it’s just big for big’s sake. McMansions used to be all the rage, but they’re no longer enough. Here’s why

It’s the heated white onyx tiles that really get me. I’m only halfway through a February afternoon tour of 530 Fishers Road in Bryn Mawr, a 26,000-square-foot mega-­mansion that developer Michael Haines is about to put on the market. And already, I’ve run out of different ways to say, “Wow.” There was the imported French limestone entryway, the hand-selected stone facade, and the dark cherrywood library with hidden bar. We climbed stairs made of exquisite mahogany, and admired doorways hand-carved by three generations of Lancaster craftsmen. Now, in the gleaming master bathroom, I’ve finally come to a complete, stunned halt. I may even have gasped. A sunken tub before a 10-foot-long window overlooks a rhododendron-framed garden, also visible through a glass-enclosed eight-spigot shower. And there are the tiles, shimmering in the sunlight, almost translucent—like a child’s favorite marble—that heat to 75 degrees. There’s only one word for it: luxury.

“It’s not a bad way to start the day, is it?” says Haines, whose Waverly Real Estate Company built the house.

This is not what I expected when I first glimpsed 530 Fishers Road, a giant that seems from the outside as though it has swallowed an entire neighborhood. But as we walk through it, I realize why, more and more, this is what Main Line homebuyers are looking for: big mansions with old-world detailing and all the best modern luxuries, rather than simply vast square footage in a stucco shoebox. “Houses used to be big for big’s sake,” says Main Line realtor Lavinia Smerconish. “Now they’re not showy big, but beautiful big. People want quality.”

And apparently, they’re willing to pay for it: Two weeks before 530 Fishers is officially listed, Haines already has a potential buyer for the $12.5 million house. Still, once the dazzle of heated onyx on a wintry morning wears off, I can’t help but wonder: Why, really, do people want such large and extravagant homes?

The Philadelphia Story is one of the all-time great movies, as much for its atmosphere of old Main Line class and wealth as for its romance. And as a model of home and lifestyle, I can think of little more luxurious than Villanova’s Ardrossan, our real-life movie mansion. But long gone are the days when the Main Line was about gallant heiresses living in gallant old homes. For much of the 20th century, new suburbanites bought pedestrian, boxy houses that seemed to sink further into soullessness with every passing decade. In the show-me ’80s and early ’90s, we saw cookie-cutter giants popping up all over, shouting I HAVE ARRIVED with all the subtlety of a politician on election night. “It’s like design got stuck,” says Anthony Costa, a Bryn Mawr orthodontist who searched for five years for a stately old (or new) mansion on the Main Line. “Everything had the same look, like that’s all anyone could think of.”