Illustration: Ron Chan
The big yellow Cat excavator rumbled up onto the lawn of the modest craftsman-era bungalow at five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. At that hour, it would have been hard for protesting neighbors to reach city officials. Quickly, the excavator's giant claw reduced the place to debris, making way for a far larger house with a double garage and a separate guest cottage. A neighbor says that the new owner, a single man, is friendly. But his overscale house is not friendly to the much smaller houses around it. It's a suburban-style McMansion in the wrong place, which happens to be Candler Park, a graceful old neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia.
The problem of teardowns and their often supersize successors is besetting formerly harmonious neighborhoods such as Candler Park in cities nationwide. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Places identified 100 communities in 20 states that were experiencing teardown epidemics in historic communities. At the end of 2007, the tally had jumped to 478 communities in 40 states. Teardown hot spots include Dallas, Tulsa, Minneapolis and Denver, where "modest bungalows are being blown apart for poptops," says Adrian Fine, the National Trust's point person on teardowns, or what are called scrapeoffs in Denver.
What's a poptop? "They'll pull the roof off a bungalow, and pop a whole new floor or two on top, maybe Tuscan revival style," says Fine. That all but guarantees long shadows in the neighbors' yards. In Atlanta, the teardown pace has been so frenetic in the last few years that city council activist Mary Norwood called it "the second burning of Atlanta."
The good news is that grassroots anti- McMansionists are fighting back. Often, they're out ahead of local government when it comes to preserving the character of their communities. In the architecturally rich, fully built-out Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, for example, village officials did nothing as more than a dozen Victorian and Prairie-style homes were demolished to make way for McMansions. "A bunch of us residents decided we wanted our officials to get more involved in the loss of these significant older homes," says longtime village resident Jackie Bossu. "But their response was that they couldn't do anything so long as our 1969 zoning law wasn't being violated. They were just running on autopilot."
Kenilworth's outdated zoning code actually encouraged teardowns because, as Bossu explains, wraparound porches, covered entries and deep bay windows—all common features of the original homes—were counted as permitted interior square footage under FAR (floor area ratio) regulations.
Historic homes in desirable neighborhoods like this one in Denver, Colo., are teardown targets.
Builders realized that they could eliminate those features to create homes with maximum bulk. The result, says Bossu, was that teardowns were replaced with "boxy houses, marketed on square footage." In 2006, Kenilworth found itself on the National Trust's list of America's 11 most endangered historic places.
Responding to rising citizen dismay, the village's building review committee called a meeting on teardowns in late 2003. "It was a weekday evening, but more than 200 residents showed up, even though we have only 830 homes," Bossu says. Belatedly, regulations were adapted to the new speculative realities, including a required "cooling-off period" for teardown permits. FAR computations were also changed to benefit existing homes rather than new construction, so owners have less temptation to sell out. And so-called snout garages, which protrude from facades of new homes (sometimes called Garage Mahals), were banned. This year, Kenilworth expects to have a revised code that is tilted toward preservation of the village's traditional fabric rather than teardowns.
In booming Dallas, a city with a surprisingly large reservoir of pre-war houses, the last few years have seen more than 1,000 teardowns (exceeding the size of Kenilworth's entire housing stock). "It's not just a problem of new houses being out of scale and proportion with others on the block, but of materials and style," says Katherine Seale, director of the civic group Preservation Dallas. In a neighborhood of low, wood-framed bungalows you'll get a limestone-faced, two-and-a-half-story house with a large faux Frenchstyle turret. It's so discordant." Seale hastens to say that "building new houses in existing neighborhoods can be compatible, and lots of architects have figured out how to do it." But too often, they don't.
Teardowns tend to multiply as a wave of residents from far-flung suburbs seeks to migrate to older inner-ring suburbs or the core city itself. They're tired of long commutes and lack of convenient services. Many hunger for "that old town feeling that isn't available where sprawl is king," says activist Barbara VanHanken, founder of Preserve Midtown in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her group seeks to maintain the character of one of the city's oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods. "These folks are tired of living far away from the center of things, and the builders are happy to oblige them. They're big on what I call pseudo-Mediterranean mania says Van Hanken." Preserve Midtown is campaigning for a moratorium on teardowns in several Tulsa neighborhoods.
The most potent factor in the invasion of McMansions on urban infill is the rising cost of land. A modest old home on a highly valuable lot is teardown bait to a speculative builder. The new house he'll build will be proportionately more expensive in keeping with the cost of the land. "When you buy a teardown in New York, or Washington or San Francisco, places with very high property values, you'll build a house worth three or four times the price of the land, so you've got to build an awfully big house," says architect Sarah Susanka. "Some of the most beautiful inner-ring suburbs are being lost before our eyes to these humongous houses dumped into their midst. And yet, it's often unintentional. People see a plan in an architectural grocery store and say, gee, that's lovely. But just because something looks good in its own isolated setting doesn't mean it's going to work where houses are densely packed."
And it's not only new houses but the expansion of existing ones whose new bulk can dominate their neighbors. "People will keep one stud from the original house to call it remodeling and then build a massive house," says Susanka. "They're determined to get every square inch out of their valuable lot," says Susanka, whose 1998 broadside against houses with too much unused space, The Not So Big House, will be published in an updated tenth-anniversary edition this year.
Invoking the mantra of sustainability, Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute, a Boston-based land-use think tank, argues that big new homes on urban infill can actually be a good thing: "You have folks who will say that its better to build close to town where land can be reused and the infrastructure exists rather than building it out in the cornfields." Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Places, disagrees. "It's good that people want to move closer to town, but not when they bring their suburban sensibilities to historic districts," he says. The large houses that they left behind "aren't designed to fit in these differently scaled neighborhoods."
What's to be done about McMansion-ization in the wrong places? Historic districts offer the most protection. But residents are wary of restrictions. "My constituents are afraid they'll be told what color to paint their front door," says Atlanta's Mary Norland. But last year, a task force in her city did create a new set of regulations on square footage that should bring down the size of many homes. In Dallas, new Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay Zones allow residents to decide what they'll permit, and what they won't, when new buildings are to be erected. In Minneapolis, home footprints are now limited to 50 percent of lot size. In Boulder County, Colorado, where home size averages a gigantic 6,500 square feet, a bold plan is afoot to create a system of transferring square footage rights from small houses to large houses. Owners willing to sell their right to expand their homes will get a direct payment from the county. Those rights can be bought by somebody else who wants to build or expand a McMansion beyond a certain threshold. As with pollution and carbon credits, a market for square-footage credits might just work.
The graceful neighborhoods now under siege from McMansions, it's worth remembering, were created not so much by regulation as by an earlier generation's sense of style, proportion and landscaping. "What we're trying to do is not about judging someone for having too large a home, but what's appropriate for a community that's been here for more than 100 years," says Lauren Norton, an Atlanta preservationist.
When Norton bought her own house, she received an unexpected letter from a former owner. Her name was Louise Noble Willams, and she wrote that the house had been built by her father in 1921, when only one other house was on the street and electricity had not yet arrived. "She wrote that letter when she was 83 after seeing the home for sale in the newspaper," says Norton. "I keep that letter framed on the mantel."
It's continuities like that that get lost when the big yellow Cats roll up on the lawn of an old house whose only crime is that it suddenly seems too small.
An updated Teardowns Resource Guide is available from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (). It's a fact-packed advocacy guide on how to take control of neighborhood character.