People, I am beside myself.
As y’all know, I work in operations at a design studio. Usually the things my coworkers share on our #random Slack channel are technology related (and thus completely over my head) or super played out memes I’ve already seen during the 90% of my life that I spend on social media.
But when the glory that is McMansionHell.com hit the thread I was truly floored and given no choice but to share it with literally everyone I know. McMansions (n.) can best be described as the gaudy, humongous, oft cheaply constructed and illogically designed homes built around the turn of the millennium for the now defunct “Upper Middle Class” to feign opulence to their surrounding suburban neighbors. As the blog beautifully puts it, they are the “knockoff bags of architecture.”
When the bubble burst, many of these homes were either repossessed or put up for sale by their recession-hit owners. McMansion Hell is a blog that takes photos of the worst of these monstrosities from real estate websites like Zillow, and explains in perfect comedic tone the blatant architectural failures of each room in the home. The writer, Kate, is originally from North Carolina (right?) and really knows what she’s talking about, presumably in part because these thangs are ALL OVER THE FREAKIN’ PLACE in our home state.
As someone who lived in a McMansion for the whole of my teenage years–and returned for the holidays up until a few months ago when my combined family finally split up and flipped that thing to the highest bidder–this blog speaks to my deepest embarrassments and confusion about the world in which I came of age, and about the people who conceived of it.
My mother and father divorced when I was 4, and if you count each of their respective residences, I lived in a total of 8 homes before graduating high school. Since each household was supported by a single-parent breadwinner, it’s safe to say that the first 7 of them were…comfortable. Even nice, in the way middle class subdivisions were in the 90s, before everything started dropping into foreclosure like flies. Not really boastful or flashy, but a nice, safe place for kids to grow up.
From ‘94 to ‘99, my mother, two of my brothers and I lived in a nice little neighborhood called Lake Moor in Garner, North Carolina. Garner wasn’t exactly a town known for its wealth per capita, but Lake Moor was one of the nicer spots in the area. It was the kind of place where, at least it seemed, you could let your kids roam around on bikes unsupervised, down the paved trails in the woods to throw rocks in Lake Benson, never giving it a second thought that they’d be kidnapped or hit by a truck. There was even a community pool with a vending machine that sold BRISK Iced Tea for $0.60 a can and playground that only left you with splinters 90% of the time. Luxury, indeed.
^See, fairly normal suburban whatever-house. There used to be a third tree in that patch but it fell during hurricane Fran. I remember because the next day when I was climbing on it a yellow jacket stung the back of my leg. But this isn’t about Fran this is about a house that I remember being much bigger than this! Turns out I was just smaller than I am now! Science is crazy.
My favorite thing as a child was to play pretend, specifically as a princess. As many of you know, I still do this today and it can be very annoying. But as a kid, it was quite cute. I had a canopy bed and all white furniture with brass plated detailing typical of a 90s girl’s room. I’d tap around the foyer of our house in my shiny black Sunday shoes and polyester slips believing I was Cinderella or whomever I wanted to embody that day. My mother’s taste in furniture was grand and traditional, dark cherry woods that, when I slid the fingers of my white gloves across them, made me feel like Anastasia. Outside, I’d play with my dog in the overgrown cattails by the pond and talk to myself, like the tomboy alter ego of any fairy tale protagonist. But inside, I would put on a toy tiara and sneak into my mom’s china cabinet to play with her silver. We didn’t live in a McMansion just yet, but the details were there. The aspiration was there. To me, it always felt like pretend. And I guess it was supposed to.
It’s normal for kids to idolize those who have more than they do. Adults, too. And to the untrained eye, bigger + crazier + vague references to lavishness of yore = wealth. On summer days, my brother Winston and I used to rollerblade down to the neighborhood’s one local McMansion, which at the time we just referred to as “The Mansion,” and we’d gawk at how official it looked. To us, it was basically the White House. Who lived there, we wondered? They must be famous! Remember, this house was in Garner, North Carolina. Probably not a half mile from our own. No…looking back, I don’t think anyone “famous” lived there. We were young.
^McMansion AF, you guys! For some reason I remember there being a gate at the beginning of this driveway but that would be literally nuts, wouldn’t it? Also, please look at the mailbox. And that gigantic dormer. And the spacing of the windows. And the chimney! And the fact that there are TWO FUCKING FRONT DOORS! This is the house that I wanted to live in at age 7. As you can probably guess, there is nothing on either side of my family that qualifies as “old money.”
Not long after that, my mom remarried. Winston and I were sitting in the den of our between-houses rental home when our mom and stepfather-to-be showed us a mockup of the house they were having built. A house big enough for two of my mom’s kids and four of his and the two of them and the dog to all live together in the middle of Cary, North Carolina. It was…a certified McMansh. Or as I yelped excitedly upon seeing the drawings: “A MANSION???!” My mom shushed me, smirking. I mean it would be wrong to brag, of course. But clearly I was about the become the rich-bitch princess I had always deserved to be. I was ten years old.
I can’t really sum up what it was like to live here because all my memories are biased due to a) the fact that the ages 10-17 are some of the most complicated and traumatizing years of your life EVEN when you have a traditional nuclear family and no mental illness and b) I most certainly did not have a traditional nuclear family or a sound emotional state. But we did have 6 bedrooms, a three-car garage, a trampoline in the back, a big deck, and a massive interior which was either full of strangers or completely empty, cold and echoing. My room was enormous by any standard, which was great for retreating from the world to journal and make collages and, in the later years, to do drugs. I didn’t drive until I was almost out of high school, and I spent up to that time annoyed I didn’t live downtown with the other cool kids in their smaller, historic bungalows that better fit my ~super indie hipster aesthetic~. Things were uneven here and there, and after a while, started falling apart.
But I do think it was beautiful, and my mom loved it. She adored it, honestly, at times as though it were one of her children. I think it was a symbol for her steadfast belief that we really could have the perfect life. That our family, even though it was a weirdo wonky mess most of the time, did all belong together under this big-ass roof. “If you build it, happiness will come,” you know? Or maybe it was a “the bigger the house, the closer to God,” sort of thing. I’m kidding.
I do have some good memories of this place. The pantry, for one, which was roughly the size of my entire current apartment and always stocked with snacks; the way you could be on one end of the house hooking up with your teenage boyfriend and your parents couldn’t hear on account of being a half a mile away in their bedroom; the fact that my mom was queen of the castle, so when I was there, she was taking care of me. It was something comforting to return to when I was in college and living in houses that were quite literally falling to the ground. I hated the suburbs, sure, but I loved how you could see the stars in the sky, walk around in the middle of the night safely, jump a fence to a pool and the worst that would happen is a soccer mom would furrow her eyebrows at you through a glass-brick window.
And of course, once I moved to New York, our McMansion became my post-ironic luxury. Every time I would visit I’d take photos of myself in my mom’s spa-like bathroom, walk around in her terry cloth robe sipping champagne, bask in the sun in an adirondack chair and worry about absolutely nothing. That’s what the suburbs are good for – while they may not be an entirely accurate representation of your reality, if in fact you are in the market for a comfortable delusion, they are always there for you. At 23, living in a rat infested building and making $300 a week, I loved going home again to play pretend.
The house sold back in April when the Bradys came un-bunched. But I don’t miss it. It was too much, like a lot of things that were going on at the time. And now a new young family lives there and my mom lives in a lovely house not too far away. But looking at the photos of it, I have to say I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. On Google street view you can see our old cars in the driveway, and for a second it really got to me. I don’t miss the house really, or the neighborhood, or most of the family. I guess part of me just misses the safety of having a home base at all. Misses not knowing the truth: that you can’t go back to the past, that everything disappears eventually, that some things weren’t made to last in the first place.
ANYWAY, the blog is funny as shit, and I am basically in love with Kate and her taste level/depth of knowledge/dry-as-heck wit. Apparently we’re from the same place and all, so unless she’s like 75, we MUST have some mutual friends. If you know her, introduce me, so we can get married ironically on the steps of a McMansion.