Blogger Kate Wagner gleefully chronicles hot-mess mansions, pillorying about 200 homes across 45 states since she launched McMansion Hell two years ago.
Wagner, 24, created her near-instant viral blog to mock ostentatious houses and educate house haters. Who doesn’t loathe a McMansion, typically thought of as oversized homes squeezed onto small lots, with inept designs that are shoddily executed.
But few people can as intelligently articulate such architectural folly as Wagner. Her go-to definition: “McMansions are like obscenity: You know it when you see it.”
And when she sees it, she doesn’t hold back.
On the blog, Wagner overlays biting commentary on top of photos of homes she deems as pompous, using arrows to point out the offending features: entry columns “so bad they look upside down,” a display cabinet filled with “overly ornate objects,” an out-of-place porthole window that elicited a derisive “ahoy mateys,” or just “lol” atop a jumbled roofline.
“Ah yes, the esteemed landscaping school known as ‘let’s make all the plants into weird balls,’” she remarked on an image of a 4,500-square-foot Tennessee mansion.
The snark-invested Tumblr blog has 65,000 followers and offers subscriptions with bonus content, enabling Wagner to work on the enterprise full-time. It also features Wagner’s essays on urban planning and architectural history; the Baltimore-based blogger holds a master’s in audio science with a specialty in architectural acoustics from Johns Hopkins University.
Last year, real estate website Zillow threatened Wagner with legal action for using its photos but backed down after the Electronic Frontier Foundation cited the fair use doctrine that allows for parody and commentary.
Wagner’s subjects are usually homes that top 3,500 square feet. Columns (especially hollow ones) and foam-injected crown molding are routinely savaged.
Wagner, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, despises “lawyer foyers,” two-story entries that resemble law firm atriums with their grand staircases and mammoth chandeliers that have “a whole window devoted to them so you can see them from the outside.” And it irks her when a master bedroom’s ceiling starts “to get a little wonky looking,” with ill-configured ductwork tucked within irregular ceiling shapes — often caused by what she called “roofline soup,” a lineup of complicated styles.
Among the first homes Wagner skewered was a 4,354-square-foot Encino home listed for about $2 million. The boxy house included exterior columns, a roof balustrade, a lawyer foyer and a beige palette.
“It was just mind numbingly dull,” Wagner said.
McMansions were born as home finance became liberalized and deregulated during the 1970s. Changes in cultural aesthetics and a spike in consumerism also contributed.
In Los Angeles, McMansions have become prevalent in the Fairfax, Valley Village and Beverlywood neighborhoods.
McMansions often cram in the greatest amount of features for the lowest possible cost. A pastiche of overblown shapes and styles borrowed from different architectural periods are usually at play.
“There are diminishing returns” for McMansions, said Paul Habibi, real estate professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Additional size generally decreases the price per square foot a home can command, he said. Other trade-offs include sacrificing open space that buyers value.
The purpose of such pretension is to “communicate the wealth of the owner,” Wagner said, adding that McMansions are “lazily built.”
“It’s such a shameless flaunting of wealth when there’s so much difficulty in finding affordable housing,” she said.