Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.
My husband hates our apartment. Or, he would say MY apartment, since I was living here first, and he moved in. He hates that it has no dishwasher or laundry, and he hates the cheap fixtures and the crumbling bathroom tile (our rent is significantly below market for Brooklyn because I’ve been living there for 15 years; I’ll leave it when they take me out in a body bag). He hates the city and the noise and the black soot from the street that accumulates on our windowsills.
This is, well, fairly reasonable. Our friends with kids have started the slow trickle to the suburbs, priced out of New York and yearning for yards and convenience. We visit them on weekends, and I can’t deny, it IS very nice.
I downloaded Zillow, the real estate app, just to, you know, browse around, to scope out the market (this isn't #spon for Zillow; you can use Redfin or Trulia to do the same thing). But I found the reality too depressing. The mere contemplation of the in-app mortgage calculator gave me vertigo. The housing crisis and crash of 2007 has made homeownership as the American dream seem corrupted and sick, a stale beer left out with a cigarette butt in it after a frat party.
So I moved the sliding toggle out of the price range that might, in theory, be realistic for me, to find houses in the area that cost more than $10 million — just out of curiosity. And what I found was pure, hideous, tacky, gilded-and-marble joy.
I found mansions with suits of armor in the hallway, made to look like medieval castles. Mansions clearly built in the ’80s, with custom white metal railings, by a Miami Vice fan. A mansion in Connecticut that is literally a replica of Monticello, a Nashville mansion with a giant custom pirate ship bed that belongs to Big Kenny from Big & Rich (I googled the address), a ’90s purple explosion that belonged to Eddie Murphy (I learned that when I called the realtor to ask for permission to use the photos in this article; apparently his ex-wife sold it after their divorce). Mansions on Staten Island that, well, look like mansions on Staten Island.
I started out in the tristate area and then moved on to the rest of the country. Outside of big cities, there aren’t many properties for sale over $10 million, so the handful you find are truly unique. Gradually, I discovered the regional flavors of ugly mansions: Cleveland suburbs weirdly favor medieval or chateau style, Long Island loves the look of a Gilded Age robber baron estate. Montana and the West love a massive faux log cabin with lots of stuffed animal heads; Scottsdale, Arizona, is a real grab bag of styles; Dallas does a Texas version of the Long Island robber baron look. The South is...the South.
I love finding the truly hideous standouts — and I’m good at it. See, most super expensive homes are staged to death by a realtor or are just fairly bland. You see the same looks over and over: tasteful gray-and-white living rooms, the study in dark wood paneling, massive tubs in the master bath. So you really have to develop a system to turn up the bad ones. I have a few tricks: terms like “original” or “chateau,” or setting the range for when the house was built to the ’90s. I started texting links of my best discoveries to friends and then posting them on Twitter and Instagram, and I am clearly not the only person delighted by photos of Eddie Murphy’s custom-built piano.
I’m also not the only person who has found comfort in making fun of very ugly and expensive houses. Kate Wagner, an architecture writer, has a popular blog called McMansion Hell where she dissects bad cookie-cutter homes from the perspective of a trained architect. On Instagram, @redfin_nightmares posts photos of specific bad rooms in California houses, while @pleasehatethesethings finds bad decor in home listings, albeit not necessarily mansions.
Laughing at someone who has terrible taste, even if they happen to have vast buying power, is a kind of class catharsis. Yes, these people are very rich and I am not, but look at the dumb things these rubes spent their millions on. Ha! It feels good to laugh at rich people, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what the joy of the New York Times Real Estate section is? Sure, maybe it’s snobby. I’m not saying I have amazing taste in home decor; I don’t. But I also don’t have $12 million and a swimming pool with a lazy river, a replica Statue of Liberty, or oddly phallic swirling marble columns in every room.
We have a strange relationship to the concept that “money can’t buy you class,” in the immortal words of the Real Housewives of New York’s Luann de Lesseps. In pop culture, the trope of a newly rich person with still-bad taste often gets played for comic effect — in Crazy Rich Asians, we’re supposed to laugh at Peik Lin’s new-money, socially striving family and their horrifically gaudy mansion. But they are also the people in the story with good hearts, who are welcoming and loving, as opposed to the cruel old-money dynasty that doesn’t want a middle-class American girl as a member. The Beverly Hillbillies, the shopping scene in Pretty Woman, Jay Gatsby — we have a special soft spot for a character who is judged as low class, even after they get rich (although that doesn’t seem to extend to our current president).
Maybe I feel free to judge the hideous mansions I find online because it’s a victimless crime; I don’t know who they actually belong to (Mr. Big and Mr. Murphy aside). Or perhaps it’s just living in the United States in 2018 — the general ambience of class warfare, the rise of socialism among a young cohort in big cities (still a few years away from Zillow-browsing age), the remains of shell-shock from the mortgage crisis — that makes snickering at these multimillion-dollar mistakes all the more pleasing. Or perhaps it’s just really funny when someone spends $25 million to build a home with a zebra-print library. ●