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

Perhaps, as Bissinger posits, people build for the life they want to have—not necessarily the one they live now. It may be they insist on all the luxuries, all the space, because they want to be the kinds of people who take long hot baths, clean their behinds with a special faucet, entertain dozens, and end the evening with a cigar by the billiards table. There are those people, of course. Socialite Amy Nislow, who lives in a 10,000-square-foot Frank Furness-designed home in Gladwyne, uses every room in her house, and five of the 13 fireplaces, and often hosts charity events in her massive great room. She purrs about a ceramic light fixture that she adores, and the Dutch tiles in the foyer, and the way sunlight shines in on the landing—details that architects yearn to have noticed. But aren’t most people—working long hours, chauffeuring kids to soccer practice, collapsing on comfy sofas in front of big TVs—too busy or preoccupied to really appreciate all that? Maybe the details don’t matter as much as the dream, a statement of hope that one day, the owners will grow into the life the house affords.

It’s easier, and often much cheaper, to buy a pre-manufactured house, and there’s no shortage of McMansions for sale today: Toll Brothers, for example, sold 581 houses in the area last year. So are we really on the precipice of another era of romantic, historic mansions? That may depend on how many people are willing to go the route of Anthony Costa, who gave up his search for a house in 2003 when the opportunity to build from scratch presented itself. He bought a corner lot in Villanova, hired Fred Bissinger to custom-design a new-old French country home, then spent 18 months getting it just right. He made his floors from the oak of an 1880s barn, built a stairwell that overlooked the garden like in a European estate, snuck up to neighbors’ old mansions to be sure he got the right color grout for his exterior walls. When he finished his 7,000-square-foot house in December, it looked like it had been there for a century, but inside, it felt like a home for a modern family. “I wanted a distinctive house,” he says now. “I also wanted to prove a point: This is how things should be done.”

Michael Haines, for one, isn’t worried about the future of the luxury mansion. He’s a former commercial realtor, and the house at 530 Fishers Road is one of his first residential projects. Now he’s about to start another, on 10 acres in Gladwyne, and plans one a year for the foreseeable future. “Once people realize the kind of work that’s out there, they fall in love with it,” Haines says. “This is how they want to be living, and they can. I don’t see how they’ll go back now.”