In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger isn’t always better — at least not when it comes to our houses.
This truth became even more obvious to me after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower-middle class suddenly became a dot-com millionaire in the late 1990s. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community on a hill.
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 ill at ease shuffling around all those echoing formal spaces in his so-called "home." Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to a tiny, peripheral study the size of a normal suburban bedroom, or to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed.
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.
Even in the face of this grinding recession, Americans are only slowly turning away from our 30-year obsession with bloated houses, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before.
Around the mid-19th century, houses of every class, from mansions to workers’ cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from less than 8 feet during Colonial times to 12 feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated.
Victorian kitchens 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 having to keep them up. This disenchantment with the bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early 20th century, with their credo of "smaller and simpler is better."
I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in one of these houses — 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 lot from these downsized homes of a century ago, provided we have the sense to think small for a change.