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

Several years ago, though, the tides began to turn. “It became really tacky to buy something new,” says Smerconish. “People realized there was nothing very artful about those types of houses.” Now, Smerconish estimates, at least 15 mammoth mansions—more than 10,000 square feet apiece—are going up on the Main Line with a nod to the past, in what architect Fred Bissinger terms “artisan revival style.” At least another dozen smaller homes are being renovated by architects and contractors who specialize in mimicking the style of old homes while reflecting more modern-day needs—often by adding two-story wings that have a large family room on the first floor and a master suite above. The result is homes—like 530 Fishers Road—that are the best of both worlds, and are also distinctly 21st-century American: supersized and luxurious, our two great consumer passions. “It’s about taking care of me,” says Michael Silverstein, co-author of Trading Up: The New American Luxury. “That means a really big bathroom. A giant bathtub. A steam shower and Jacuzzi. They can have it all.”

With high-end incomes growing even higher, and real estate prices soaring, Main Line mansion owners are wealthier than ever. They sleep on millions every night, even if only in a 5,000-square-foot mini-manse. And it takes a lot more to impress them than it used to. “People have always wanted to stand out, have something novel,” says Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank, author of Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess. “Now, that means bigger and what they think is more tasteful.” This goes beyond just luxury homes: The Main Line’s Hummer and Escalade dealer moved to a bigger location late last year to accommodate local demand; nationally, airplane time-shares are on the rise, as are the demand and prices for vacation homes. But creating the perfect, and perfectly outfitted, house is still the biggest sign of success—or perceived failure. As Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser puts it, “You may have a $3 million house, but if your neighbor’s is worth $5 million, then you’re a failure.” The recent influx of home stores and furniture boutiques encourages redecorating; the highest quality materials, craftsmen and custom manufacturing in nearly 50 years make it easier than ever to add on, or build new, in an old-world style. “A house is the best single investment you can make,” says Silverstein. “So it’s no problem to put in a $3,000 grill, or spend three times as much on countertops. People just think they’ll make 100 percent back, and they’ll have enjoyed it in the meantime.”

That makes sense—to a point. But even local architects and contractors—who, after all, make a fortune off such 20,000-square-foot behemoths—wonder what it’s all for. Why a master suite so large that the bath has to go on the other side of the house, with a “night john” in the bedroom for emergencies? Why the ubiquitous bidet, even though no one uses it? Why the in-house beauty salon?