Monster Houses

Before I lapsed from monotheism, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. My parents said that if I completed confirmation class, I didn’t have to go to church anymore. (They didn’t put it quite that way, but close enough.) Some 47 years later, I still remember two things from confirmation class. One was that up to almost the last minute, horsegirl that I was, I thought it was conformation class.

The other is the definition of a sacrament. I can still rattle it off verbatim: “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

The concept drifted from its theological mooring and took deep root in my supposedly secular brain. To my mind, voting is a secular sacrament: the outward and visible sign of something less tangible — democracy or vox populi or whatever you want to call it. If the less tangible something isn’t there, the voting becomes an empty ritual. Elections alone, even “free” elections, do not a democracy make.

It just dawned on me that we have negative sacraments: outward and visible signs that something within is very screwed up. Take the trophy houses and mega-mansions of the very wealthy. We mutter about them at least as much as we mutter about mopeds, and unlike mopeds they don’t go away at the end of the summer.

Monster house on West Chop. Vineyard Gazette photo by Steve Turner.

Last Friday’s Vineyard Gazette (December 2) carried a story headlined “As MVC Considers Regulating Large Houses, Builders Cry Foul.” Last week the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s land use planning committee met to consider making changes to the checklist it uses to decide whether or not a project is a DRI (development of regional impact). Yes indeed, this is the same MVC that managed for years to not-consider the proposed roundabout a DRI.

Arrayed on one side, according to the Gazette story, were island conservation groups, notably the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). On the other we had the architects of those huge houses. At one point a VCS representative called a mega-mansion designed by one of the architects present “a travesty.” That’s about as confrontational as politics on Martha’s Vineyard ever get.

Politics on Martha’s Vineyard also tend to get stuck on these negative sacraments, these symbols, these signs that something within is very screwed up. I posted this comment to the Gazette story:

Attempts to regulate the very rich are doomed to fail. In our economic system, money trumps everything, including ethics, the will of the people, and the “character of the island” (whatever that is), almost every time. But those who idealize and idolize Occupy Wall Street should take note: on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere many of the 99% make their livings serving the 1%. Those mega-mansions are disgusting, and the people who live in them will never, ever be Vineyarders, but how about the people who build them?

As a young antiwar activist, I learned that if, say, General Dynamics was the biggest employer in your town, your view of the defense budget and possibly the war currently in progress was likely to differ from that of someone whose income came from other sources or who had other options. Conservation groups are often, and with good reason, perceived as elitist because they don’t consider the implications of their positions for working people who are one, two, or three paychecks away from poverty.

For the most part, our material conditions shape our values. We hold the values we can afford to hold. People who have nothing to lose and people who can afford to lose a chunk of what they’ve got generally take more risks than people who are barely hanging on. Self-perception plays a role too, of course: some of us are farther from the brink than we think we are, and some of us are closer.

So I cheered when I read the comment of a fellow who, according to the Gazette story, “moved to the Island explicitly to build large houses.” This guy, Thomas Bena, said: “At every lunch break the guys and I sat around and said, ‘How the heck do you call this a home? It’s like a bus station in here and they’re only here for six weeks a year.’ For me, I had to stop being a carpenter. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel good about the work that I was doing every day.”

He sounds like a thoughtful man, and a brave one. The rules of our economic system give us no tools to deal with this, with the damage done to our psyches, our bodies, and our communities by so many of the jobs available to us. “You can always quit,” some would say, and in an ideal world we could. In this world of limited economic options and threadbare safety nets, we often can’t.

William Randolph Hearst’s mega-castle

These mega-mansions are a negative sacrament, true, a sign that our society is out of whack. Huge houses built to be empty nine or ten months of the year while so many live in cramped, deteriorating quarters — if they have housing at all? Individuals with enough money to call the economic and political shots for the rest of us, even though we never chose them to run our lives?

Well, yeah, but if I had to finger a single cause for the slow decline of Martha’s Vineyard over the decades, it wouldn’t be monster houses or the people who build them. I’d point instead to rising property values. Once land goes for a certain amount per acre, farming becomes economically foolish. Once land prices outpace what working people can afford, working people who need to make a living and don’t have land in the family leave. Those who stay are working so hard they have little time or energy to spare for the voluntary activities that keep community alive.

At the same time, those rising property values make it possible for property owners to take vacations, send kids to college, maybe even retire.

How tempting it is to blame it all on those monster houses.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Monster Houses

  1. Very thoughtful, Susanna. But of course the current generation of McMansion builders are not the first. There have always been seaside summer homes built by the rich to accommodate extended families, used for limited time. During lean times they become bed and breakfasts. It is unfortunate that one can’t legislate taste…most people would say the more money you have the less taste…but you can legislate the number of bathrooms a house has and who would want a 10,000 square foot home with only three bathrooms?

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  2. dabodog says:

    As a senior in high school, I had an English teacher who invited discussion on a regular basis. When the Defense Budget came up, several students were appalled to hear the #’s spent and wondered why the U.S. was building war machines in peacetime. I astutely asked how many parents worked for Electric Boat or the Navy (being in SE CT). Almost all of the students raised their hands. “That’s why,” I said. “Filthy lucre!”
    Point is, unless Martha’s Vineyard starts building schooners again, there’s no other industry other than development and building that will employ the 99%. Sad, but true.

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  3. Sara Crafts says:

    How particularly inconvenient it is to think about what percentage of our existence on MVY the taxes on these mega-mansions support. How much of our school systems and how much of our town governments–good and bad, of course–how much of our local roads, etc. As the thousands of cars grind past my house every summer and I volubly complain I do have to remember that … even fewer of us could sustain ourselves here w/o the mega-mansions and the concomitant bucks they generate into the local economy. We are such a schizophrenic Island …

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  4. Sharon Stewart says:

    A thoughtful piece, Susanna. I like how you looked at the monster homes from a variety of perspectives. I admire the carpenter, too. From experience I can say that you pay a high price for making a sacrifice because of your ethics (in addition to losing whatever it is you have sacrificed, you have to put up with flack for making that decision).

    Sharon in Ottawa

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