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'McMansion Hell' Offers Biting Take On Massive, Mismatched Homes

McMansion Hell
Kate Wagner takes apart McMansions - like this one in New Jersey - on her popular blog.

To upwardly-mobile Americans, those gigantic suburban houses known as McMansions might signal affluence and "making it," but they’re nails on a chalkboard to Kate Wagner, the writer behind the irreverent blog McMansion Hell.

Wagner was in Columbus this week to give an architectural lecture to students at the Columbus College of Art and Design, and to give a presentation to the group Young Ohio Preservationists at the Ohio Statehouse.

It's a perfect fit for Wagner, who uses her website as a sarcastic foil to the upscale housing industry. Her signature posts include a picture of a McMansion's exteriors and interiors with comments like, “This column is made of foam,” or “This window is breaking my soul.”

She takes aim at gaudy trends in decorating: "Can one even build a >$1 million house without having a four post bed in the master bedroom?" And at other symbols of wealth and power: "Only manly things happen on this desk like cigar smoking and business."

So what exactly makes a McMansion? It’s mostly about size, Wagner says, although not all big homes are McMansions.

Credit McMansion Hell
A McMansion in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

"Usually there's some kind of mismatched aesthetic, where some windows will be different shapes or styles, there will be different materials on each mass of the house, or each face," Wagner says. "And there will be incongruous architectural details from different periods, places and styles."

Most McMansions also tend to rely on cheaper materials, which is why they became popular in the first place. 

“Through the entirety of architectural history, for the most part, the sort of upwardly mobile or the wealthy and famous hired architects to sort of further the art of architecture," Wagner says. "That’s always been where some of America’s most famous houses have come from."

That's also what makes the McMansion trend now so disappointing, she says, especially because cheap materials shouldn't prevent people from making a good house.

“The fact is," Wagner says, "that kind of lineage was eroded with the sort of advent of custom building in the 70s and 80s when families could just say, ‘Why would I hire an architect when I can get exactly what I want? I’m the architect now.'"

Credit McMansion Hell
A McMansion in Rankin County, Mississippi.

Though she’s grown famous because of her witty and often silly takes on McMansions, Wagner has some serious architectural chops. Her blog also includes in-depth history lessons about housing in America, and even a first-history account of how she learned about the history of her current home.

Wagner temporarily shut down her site earlier this year after real estate site Zillow threatened her with legal action that most experts saw as an overreach. After the Elecronic Frontiers Foundation came to Wagner's defense, Zillow eventually backed down.

Wagner’s received a lot of media attention since launching her blog last summer, but says she has not received any pushback from homeowners.

“For me, it’s important to have an objective analysis of an architectural sort, not necessarily to get the personal involved," Wagner says. "Home is always going to be home.”