Here in these United States we have a long and storied tradition of loving anything massive, other than people (not that this has stopped us from piling on the pounds, mind you). But when it comes to everything else, the bigger the better. Again, this is not revelatory to anyone paying attention to American culture, which can be pretty much be accomplished by paying attention to Texas. You can ignore everywhere else — especially the Northeast, which hasn’t been quintessentially American since the 18th century, and the Northwest, which is all polar fleece, outdoorsiness, zoning regulations (see: Portland) and coffee — by definition defying the over-scaled.
So, in honor of the week following the Thanksgiving holiday, during which we continue to eat excessively in order to give thanks for all that this great country of ours has to offer: the bloated post-meal nap, turkey sandwich leftovers, those extra holes in our belts, Black Friday sales at Wal-mart where the women’s clothes are tailored to the American dream and size 8 is actually size 14, here are a few examples of impressively scaled American houses & decor — lived in and enjoyed by regular-sized people. Sponsored by the good folks over at Restoration Hardware (just kidding).
First up, the grandmother of them all, the mind-boggling Biltmore Estate with its 40 bathrooms. One for each year of homeowner Cornelius Vanderbilt’s life. No, I don’t know that this is true, but with 19th century life expectancy being what it was, maybe using one bathroom per year is what he had in mind. One aspect of the Biltmore that strikes you when you visit, or even visit the website, is the fact that this is one obese American grand dame who does not suffer from low self esteem. The Biltmore loves the Biltmore and is convinced you will too.
The Biltmore was clearly designed and built for a rich family. The whole point of the project was conspicuous consumption — a visual demonstration of the power of the haves to separate themselves from the have-nots. But in the 20th century, an interesting development occurred in home building. With the rise of the middle class it seems that a whole bunch of us were able to afford a lot more space, relatively speaking. And in the last 30 years the rush to build mini-estates in carefully groomed and plotted subdivisions has taken place on a scale that would probably impress even the Vanderbilts. These homes with their living rooms roughly the size of gymnasiums are an amazing hybrid of design features formerly reserved for the rich (such as a two-story wall of windows) with the trappings of a middle class lifestyle (recliners and 42-inch televisions for instance).
Several years ago I was hired to do some decorative painting in one of these massive middle class homes and was impressed by the lady of the manor, who worked in a department store. She used every retail trick in the book when it came to decorating the house for the holidays. Gigantic ornaments on a 6-inch wide expanse of sparkling ribbon dangled from the chandelier in the two-story entryway. She managed to erect a Christmas tree approximately 20 feet tall, festooned to within an inch of its life. The tree was so overwhelmed with ornaments that her kids were afraid of it. It looked as though it might topple over and kill the dog.
Eventually she tired of maintaining the house, and the household, for that matter, and the whole enterprise fell apart when she participated in that other great American tradition: the middle class divorce. I always wondered what happened to her oversized decorations after she moved out of her oversized house, but never found out. I never even had the chance to complete the decorative painting project. I think she realized that no amount of sponge painting was ever going to make that particular great room warm and inviting.
The fact is: America provides a lot of opportunities for greatness for us regular folk, from our girths to our living rooms. We can choose how we want to live in this country. And sometimes this means we make choices we regret, from the ceiling height of our living rooms to the amount of food on our plate.
And whether or not you believe bigger is better, I hope that whatever the square footage of your home or the size of your turkey, this holiday season will provide an opportunity to celebrate to scale. Or at least the opportunity to pull a chair up beside a blazing hearth in order to warm your toes while contemplating the joys of season. And if this means you need a couple of grown men to help you drag your overstuffed chair next to the fireplace, that’s okay. That’s just the American way.