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The Big, The Boring and The Ugly

How The Days of Trophy Homes May Be Numbered

Remember how all through recorded history, women AND men liked to dress up in fur garments? Then back in the 1970s, certain people developed the odd notion of not liking to hurt what is now trendily known as “sentient beings.” These folks took offense to animals being held in cages to get ‘em sleek and furry enough to kill ‘em and skin ‘em and make jackets out of ‘em.

These protesting freakazoids started throwing red paint – and not even latex paint, mind you; it was oil-based! -- on fur coat wearers.

And remember what happened? (And if you're too young to remember, I'll tell you.) Although many people thought that spewing paint on anyone was rude in the extreme, a paradigm shift arrived, seemingly overnight. More people started to believe that killing and skinning critters was just plain wrong. Folks who continued to find nothing objectionable about this practice, and who adored their mink wraps more than life itself, found it necessary to draw their bedroom drapes, remove their furs from locked cabinets, and wear them for their own solitary viewing before a dimly-lit three-sided mirror.

How much fun was that?

My prediction: The same sudden and politically volatile revulsion is about to make the modern day Whoopty-do house into something no one will want to be caught dead in. Certainly not alive in. Of course, an abode the size of a mini-mall is not so easily stuck in a closet or given to Good Will. Folks'll  have to call in the bulldozers.

Here’s how the movement against bazinga-sized houses will go down: No, we will not be shooting red pigment at any of our Island’s block-long homes. What’s going to happen is this: 

Rich hosts and hostesses will goof up and invite some absolute lout of a 99%-er over for dinner. This is usually about as common as threading that ol’ camel through a needle, but sometimes people make mistakes. Normally rich people surround themselves with other rich people because, well, who else will let them rattle on about the thousand buck-lunch at that cute little bistro down the block from their office? And plans for St. Moritz next weekend? And whose jet should we take, or should we all fly our own and meet up there?

This is obnoxious conversation, to be sure, but who are we to look down our noses at what people say in the privacy of their own baronial dining halls, with a screening room above, and a bowling alley below (for the kids, the help, and the squad of security guys.)

But let’s just say a depraved, broke, and yet high-minded 99%-er is seated at a dinner table thronged by a dozen billionaires, and a supercilious butler has just extended a tray of lamb slices and Brussels sprouts over the d.b. yet h.m.ed 99%-er’s left shoulder, and the latter says, looking to her left, then looking to her right, and seeing field-stone fireplaces blazing on both sides, suddenly asks the host point-blank:

 “Why’d you build this place so big, dude?”

The only honest answer would be, “Because you can never construct a home large enough to impress all your friends. Someone’s gonna go ten / fifteen thousand square feet bigger than your own most recent acquisition and, dammit! you’re left with egg on your face!”

So what are we talking about here? Of the ten biggest houses in America, the most egregious is the so-called Versailles in Orlanda, FL, measuring a staggering 90,000 (yup, no mistake in the zeros in that figure) square feet. That makes the White House seem cozy, coming in at a mere 55K. Bill Gates’s big whammo of a house is 66K, beating out the Sultan of Brunei’s estate in Las Vegas by a full thousand square feet.

All of which reduces the monstrosity meter of any of the bozo-big new constructions on Martha’s Vineyard, the fattest turkey of the flock that 21,000K colossus on Upper Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

But most of the local big boppers tip the scales at nine / ten thousand.

And yet . . . we just don’t like them, do we?   

We love the hills and dales and shorelines of our scenery here, and we resent having rows of pretentious Palladian windows and enough cedar shingles to patch over the Wall of China, sitting squat in the midst of what used to be a gorgeous natural view.

So let’s get cracking.

Now that the summer’s over, there’s less chance than ever that you or I will be invited to dinner at a home at least four thousand square feet too big for its own good. But if you do, mind your manners: Place your butter knife on the small dish to your left, and try not to blow your nose with your linen napkin. Don’t be a muzhik, in other words (you’ll find it in Dostoyevsky; it means, loosely, a ham-fisted dolt).

But then, at this dinner party, as soon as it’s determined who has more diamonds, Bulgari’s or Tiffany’s, be sure to get in some little dig about the galootishly large house.

As in:

“Are you leaving this to a convent?”

“I’d like to use the bathroom, but do you have a GPS for finding my way back to the table?”

“Next time there’s an earthquake in Haiti, why don’t you air-lift the whole population to this house?”

See? We don’t need to be too, too disagreeable about it. All we need to do is administer a well-placed gibe or two and, before you know it, people will be shucking their chateaux (or at least razing the east and north wings) quicker than you can say Sultan of Brunwho?

Ken Esq September 05, 2012 at 07:56 PM
MollyK, just wondering how are you gouged my the MV landbank?
Donald Muckerheide September 05, 2012 at 08:07 PM
Thank You Molly: Unfortunately few recognize the value of the Pit Stop when it comes to spending "their" money. Thanks Michael! I can't wait to start spending some of your money to save the masses.
Donald Muckerheide September 05, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Residents do not pay the Landbank fee. 2% of a big number is real money.
Ken Esq September 05, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Donald, thanks. So, it's just a one-time fee on the transaction. Compared to what happens to seasonal residents in Florida that's a pittance.
Rick Hamilton September 05, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Warren Buffett still lives in the modest home he bought in 1949. I think he sets a fine example.
Rick Hamilton September 05, 2012 at 09:09 PM
A manse is a house inhabited by, or formerly inhabited by, a minister.
MollyK September 05, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Hey Ken, if I wern't already married I would be trying to find you on Facebook right now. Donald is right, 2% of a big number is huge. If you think it's a "pittance" and your single, I have a friend who's looking! Mathea (I love that name), thanks for putting me in my place but what passes for entertainment during the year means different things to different people. I come here during the off season and as someone for a large city, what's going on is not nearly enough. For the most part the island becomes a ghost town. If you want peace and quiet it's the perfect place to be, a perfect place to be a part of the slow live movement: slow food, slow loce, slow life; bit.ly/hacBG8CO
MollyK September 05, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Make that "slow love".
Ken Esq September 05, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Molly, use this as a guide to the way Florida property taxes work: $500,000 home with Florida homestead exemption $4,000/year $500,000 home without Florida homestead exemption $15,0000/year $500,000 home in Edgartown seasonal resident: $1,500/year The non-homestead in Florida also has no cap on increases year to year while Florida resident's tax increases are capped at 3%.. Those figures scale right up with home value. So, a 5,000,000 home is getting hit with $150,000/year So, while the 2% one-time Landbank tax isn't peanuts...it's nothing compared to Florida where the property taxes approach 3% of the total home value each year. While I'd love to meet you or your friends...I'd probably bring my wife and two boys along (7 and 4)...and if it was at your home I'd be complaining that the taxes are nothing when compared to the cost of replacing everything they broke.
Holly Nadler September 05, 2012 at 09:47 PM
Mathea, I couldn't have said it better!
Donald Muckerheide September 05, 2012 at 10:29 PM
Fortunately for Floridians they learned to differentiate between residential and non-residential property. In Mass. we ignore our own laws for properly assessing real property by failing to differentiate between commercial use and residential use. The weekly rental is unregulated here so house values are based on the value of the house as a rental. The people allowed themselves to be priced out of the housing market because a resident can not financially compete with a weekly rental. The weekly rental competes unfairly by being cheaper than hotels and bed and breakfasts who pay rooms tax while competing unfairly with the resident by pushing values up. The residents who own their own home have their houses valued as rentals and therefore pay too much property tax. But they did it to themselves by ignoring existing law. The decline of the Vineyard has a long history starting with Ted Kennedy's, Kennedy Bill.
MollyK September 05, 2012 at 10:48 PM
The figures are scandalous. The rest, hilarious.
Holly Nadler September 06, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Oh, MollyK, summer kids are NOT more stimulating than our island kids: they spend all their time talking about their expensive toys.
Mathea Morais (Editor) September 06, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Molly, you hit the nail on the head. Those of us who choose to live here year-round appreciate our slow life, our slow love, our slow food. I, for one, do not go to Manhattan to walk on the beach in the snow or to see a moon rise over a frozen pond. I go there for the excitement, the food, the nightlife - all on a much grander and more intense scale then I'll find here at any time of the year. My point was not that the Island has anything close to the number of events that one would find in a large city, but rather that the notion that nothing goes on here other than a large amount of drinking, is actually absurd.
Jeannette de Beauvoir September 06, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Molly, I don't live on the Vineyard, but I *am* a full-time resident of the outer Cape and as such feel I have a right to respond, as we share many of the Vineyard's problems. A great deal of the money generated by the summer people actually leaves the Cape: it goes to restaurants and establishments owned by people who don't live here and are only here in "the season" -- so, frankly, all those megabucks you claim to spend to keep "my" economy going don't help me one bit. Thanks anyway. My winters are far, far happier than my summers. We have three year-round theaters. We have old-fashioned fun—the kind you don't buy—with trivia nights and sing-alongs and open-mic nights and impromptu concerts and reading groups. And all that without becoming raging alcoholics. The original article was about people buying beauty that once belonged to everyone and converting it into personal property. It's not only the fault of the McMansion owners: someone sold them that land. So there's plenty of fault to go around. And the divide between townies and wealthy visitors—whether it's the town-and-gown distinction, or merely based on affluence and entitlement—is as old as humanity. Instead of underlining that distinction (because all of us are already painfully aware of it as we end yet another season), why not try a little sensitivity?
Peter Dreyer September 06, 2012 at 01:12 PM
Look at Newport, RI. Its big mansions are museums today, with tourists trotting through their echoing chambers. Look 50 years back when vacationers loved MV with its cozy cottages (colonials were considered BIG then) and thought of it as the closest thing to paradise, peopled with crusty and quirky characters. Now look 50 years ahead when MV will be dotted with McMansions. Oops, what happened to the MV we so loved? It's remembered only on the pages of the Gazette. The island has become the victim of its own success.The characters now deliver support services for the McMansions. Freedom is all well and good, but there's also freedom to restrain excess and the trappings of success.
Holly Nadler September 06, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Jeanette de Beauvoir, thank you for your eloquent thoughts and Peter Dreyer, also loved what you had to say. I return to my own basic gripe: Can't stand those overnight-mushrooms of big blotchy bloody blank blobs of mall-sized new houses in the middle of what had once been a remarkable breath-taking pastoral landscape.
Carolyn O'Daly September 06, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Holly I will take my tongue out of my cheek for a moment (boy did you start a firestorm!) and agree with you that the pendulum swings....in the long ago past many McMansions were built here and were used by large, extended families. When families became smaller they were turned into B&Bs. This may happen again. As far as the usage of finite resources...shame on anyone who says we have a 'right' to use more than our share no matter how much money we have.
Michael West September 06, 2012 at 02:20 PM
I definitely do not agree politically with Donald. We just see things differently, but I do feel a great debt of gratitude to him for the PitStop. I've only been a few times, and can't afford the membership, but I can tell you he is not making a dime on that place, and it is a jewel of creativity and expression for the many talented musicians and performers here in our island community. We are living in a time of explosion of creative talent. The Ape Woman opera is a perfect example, but jazz, weekly open mikes, singer songwriter nights for emerging talent and the more established names as well. This is a wonderful place to minimize the impacts of alcohol and drugs on our young, talented islanders. And Don and his family and others have done a great job in making the PitStop the place to go to see and hear and to perform music on island. Now about those mansions...
Holly Nadler September 06, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Carolyn, that's an excellent point about the old-time big homes being thoroughly enjoyed by extended families & friends throughout the summer. One of the big travesties about the new trophy homes is that they're (in many cases) used by a couple who touches down for two weeks at a time between their castle in Scotland, their place in Holmby Hills, LA, their three-story condo in San Francisco, and -- what locales am I leaving out?
Charlie Nadler September 06, 2012 at 05:56 PM
My year round friends are awesome and any additional summer friends have always been a nice bonus for sure. Your talking down to the year round life is awesome and I very much appreciate it, and I think you're the coolest person on the internet. I just wanna say nice things cuz I feel like you have a lot of stuff that hurts you and I'm around a lot of people like that daily and it's painful to be around so I'm going to stop typing now enjoy the rest of your summer you've blessed mine for sure!
Charlie Nadler September 06, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Molly's kids do have the best chronic though.
Holly Nadler September 06, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Charlie, are you talking about a "chronic" cough?
Bloodyrue Andrue September 06, 2012 at 09:08 PM
Imagine a sliding glass doorway 24 feet high, and roughly 40 feet long and arched to boot. Yikes.
Bloodyrue Andrue September 06, 2012 at 09:17 PM
I know of a place in Chilmark that has a hallway with 7 doors and a huge giant glass block shower on the other side of those doors. Really, very strange. If you have money to burn, it sure does go to the oddest places at time. Interesting how much a curved surface in the building will add to those pockets that provide and build it. Hard to say: "Keep your McMansions off the island." When you start to think how many people are involved in the building. Jobs and cashflow to build these things are taken to the bank by those that produce the wastefulness of the 1%. God bless the 1% for keeping America working.
Bloodyrue Andrue September 06, 2012 at 09:29 PM
I grew up in the white house across from the graveyard on Main St. West chop, Currently owned by the Sayers. We had 9 acres of forest behind our house and it was a great place to live in. Big houses are wonderful for children, so many places to hide and go seek. The forest was full of trees to climb. Times are different today, either you are ugly rich or beautifully poor. This island has changed, but the people that work and live here year round are the most dedicated workers, family oriented and back to basic roots people in America. Year rounders get it, they feel it, they network it, they enjoy it, and they complain about the thing that brings the paycheck. Martha's Vineyard is truely blessed by the people that live here.
Holly Nadler September 07, 2012 at 12:26 AM
We may be running out of steam here . . .
Michael West September 07, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Ok, but in response to the reasonable pov that the excesses of the 1% keep islanders employed, I would just say this: It is not sustainable. Yes, we can get hooked on building the big mansions, but where and how do we live and raise families. A much better approach is for all that unnecessary spending to be used more productively in creating island businesses, in creating housing for islanders so they won't have to move every 6 months, in building a sustainable economy.
James September 07, 2012 at 01:45 PM
Anyone (Mme. Beauvoir) who seriously believes that the money generated from landbank fees and taxes from business on this island, summer or otherwise, does not help support the island is delusional. Certainly some of the money goes to the business owners but to imply that the portion of the money generated by these businesses and the support they provide to the island is insignificant, is naive. In addition, Dukes County has the highest rate of substance abuse in the state of Massachusetts. I love this island but seriously, let's be accurate and honest: http://alturl.com/xnknv.
Holly Nadler September 07, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Michael, whatever you write, it reminds me of why you're one of my best friends! . . . has anyone gotten around to discussing the obscenely large carbon footprint emitted by gigundus houses? You know who leaves the smallest carbon footprint? A homeless person! So the meanest right-wingy-est of our citizenry has to stop yelling at them, "Get a job!"

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