Town Square

Post a New Topic


Original post made by gordon on Sep 6, 2007

"McMansion is a slang architectural term which first came into use in the United States during the 1980s as a pejorative description. It describes a particular style of housing that—as its name suggests—is both large like a mansion and as generic and culturally ubiquitous as McDonald's fast food restaurants.

In addition to ubiquity, almost every reason to poke fun at McDonald's has been applied metaphorically to "McMansions". These criticisms include the deviation from traditional local or regional architectural style; a gaudy, sterile, mass-produced appearance; and perceived negative effects on nature and neighborhoods. . ."

That's the definition coalescing over on Wikipedia.

What's yours?

Comments (67)

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 6, 2007 at 12:45 pm

A McMansion in Palo Alto is any home that neighbors, historical preservation zealots, people still living in 1950 etc. do not like. It has become common in PA to denigrate any home that does not meet the criteria of the above mentioned groups---what the actual owner thinks/wants is irrelevant to the discussion---by using the term McMansion/Monster Home/taco bell home.

Posted by gordon, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2007 at 12:52 pm

That's fine, but what happens when one of those homes actually does look just like a Taco Bell?

Posted by McHappy, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:12 pm

Some of the so called McMasions look a whole lot better than the crummy, rundown, paint peeling, scruffy McMessy homes they're replacing. The re-builds have definitely upgraded many PA neighborhoods - let it continue!

Down with Historic preservation and up with Individual Property Rights - change is good!!

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Nothing is wrong if the home looks like a Taco Bell--don;t the owners have any say in what THEIR HOME looks like? Anyway, who gets to decide what a home actually looks like--the owner or the so-called arbitrators of "proper homes" in Palo Alto.
We have too much of that in Palo Alto where neighbors, preservationists, busy bodies and other assorted groups are constantly trying to control what does not belong to them.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:22 pm

McMansion is a term for a house that is as large as possible on an average sized lot. Taco Bell house is the style that some may consider mediterranean or mexican influenced, but still too large for the lot. The houses themselves are probably well designed, attractive and modern. The neighbors don't like them because they are too big on a too small lot.

Transport any one of these houses to a nice couple of acres lot, with long driveway, lots of shrubbery, etc. and it would be fabulous.

It is not the house, it is the positioning that's the problem.

Posted by bigger is better, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:22 pm

I think it is wonderful to put oversized homes next to modest ranch homes. It gives the little homes a goal, a dream, an aspiration. It lets them think big!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:27 pm

In Vancouver, British Columbia, the term they used was "Monster Homes" in their newspaper. They long time residents of Vancouver expressed dismay at the demolition of their quaint neighborhood homes and the removal of established trees to make room for these huge residences, with little or no room for any vegetation.
I will try to search in their archives for the story.
It was a big story with many photos. I think this was back around 1998.

Posted by big, bigger, biggest, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:33 pm

That's right. And once the modest little ranch homes realize their dreams & aspirations on their undersized little lots, they can look directly into each other's bedrooms rather than be looked down upon by their lofty neighbors.

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Aren't their rules/laws in PA with regard to how much of a lot can be taken up by the actual home ( I guess I am referring to setbacks)--as long as the owner is abiding by these rules, then the house cannot be considered "too big for the lot".So probably much of the use, in a derogatory manner, of the terms Mcmansions/Monster House/Taco Bell Home has more to do with the neighbors taste than the actual size of the home. Maybe it is time for people to stop trying to control what they do not own and be better neighbors.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:46 pm

There is a real McMansion trend happening here in Palo Alto. There is nothing wrong with a new, large, home replacing an older home.

What astounds, amazes, and disappoints me as i travel through town is to see so much money wasted on what cannot be described as anything other than preposterous and disproportionate housing design.

This a great irony, because the residents who build these homes certainly have the means to hire a quality architect.

I guess the whole scene goes to show that there is no assumed correlation between wealth and taste.

Posted by Minni, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2007 at 1:50 pm

I have to laugh every time I walk by a home on a modest lot that have Roman Doric or other columns at the entrance portal. It's nothing, if not juvenile design. What are these people thinking?

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 6, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Minni/Alan--as long as these people have come by their money honestly and they keep with in the setbacks decreed for their lot, then the houses they build is their own business. If you do not like the house or that style do not live in it or build like that for yourself.
it amazes me how people here decide what is in "good taste", what is a "quality architect" and what design is "juvenile" or not.
i guess maybe Pa needs to set up a "taste commission" to make decisions on what kind of homes can be built in the city--to hell with what the owner wants--others know better

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2007 at 2:07 pm

The fact that Minni doesn't like Doric columns on houses on small lots isn't surprising or even objectionable. What's surprising is that Minni, and folks like her, think they have the moral (or aesthetic) high ground on that topic. Doesn't she realize that there will be plenty of other people who think her house/landscaping/interior design/car/clothes (you name it) look just as goofy to them?

My definition of a McMansion (posted elsewhere recently) is a house that's bigger and more expensive than what the neighbors are willing to build. It's just envy.

That same Wiki talked about the McMansion trend and how it keeps getting bigger. Guess what - a lot (A LOT) of people like bigger, fancier houses if they can get them. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by someone, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 6, 2007 at 8:59 pm


House with an entry door/porch/hall the size of the owner's ego, totally out-of-proportion with the rest of the house and huge round tiles on the roof, way too big to look like an actual Mediterranean/Spanish roof.

Posted by you are all tools, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 6, 2007 at 9:21 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by McEnvy, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 5:57 am

I'm amazed at how many people there are around who can afford to heat these McMansions!!!

Posted by McTolerance, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 7:37 am

Why judge someone based only on the size of their house?

Posted by I'll be leaving soon, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 7, 2007 at 7:49 am

We'll all probably be dead and gone when it happens, but these are cutom homes; I doubt they'll increase in price/appreciate or be easy to sell.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2007 at 8:46 am

Let the market decide what's a McMansion and what lacks taste. As long as there are buyers for these houses, then they will be built. Just because it doesn't suit your taste doesn't mean it won't sell.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2007 at 9:25 am

It isn't the problem of the size of the house it is the size of the lot. When a large house is squeezed onto a small lot between two modest houses, the large one looks out of place even though it is obeying all the setback rules. Once the ones either side get replaced and then those neighbors get replaced, and the whole street is full of large McMansions, it will suddenly look as if the place was designed that way and nothing will look odd anymore.

Posted by gordon, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 9:45 am

Mr. McTolerance,

The reason people began calling these monstrosities "McMansions" is exactly because people who build these things are trying to attract attention to themselves by building ostentatious homes amidst modest ones.

If they weren't trying to attract attention to themselves, they wouldn't bother to bulldoze the existing house and build these huge, inappropriate structures.

In other words, it's not just what the market will bear. These things don't just happen.

People go way out of their way to make them happen. And then the rest of the neighborhood has to live in the shadow of the thing.

Posted by homeowner, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 7, 2007 at 10:03 am

homes wear out and have to be replaced - it makes sense to up the square footage when you have the opportunity. I read some years ago that the average American home has 2400 square feet. Some might call my home a McMansion because it is Mediterranean style, however it is under 2400 square feet. It isn't tiny, but I wouldn't call it oversized by any means. We could sure use more space.

Posted by Shadowman, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 10:29 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Maybe the people who build the new larger houses in town are building them because they would like more space, and the find the style of the houses pleasing to their sense of aesthetics. There's no reason to think they're trying to attract the attention of their neighbors. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 11:05 am

Gordon, I'm not sure where you live, but the idea somebody would pay $1-2 million to live in a post-war sub-division shack when they could spend another $500K-$1000K to have a really nice new house - that seems like good sense to me. Maybe you think it is ego (and maybe some of it is) - but a lot of people like larger, newer houses that they can take pride in.

If you are happy with your more unassuming abode, then you have what you need; why so upset about what the other guy has? Sorry if it ruins the neighborhood for you; but keep in mind, the other guy may think you are ruining the neighborhood for him ;-)

It brings to mind the guy on the redwoods thread who said he planted redwoods to shield the view of the McMansion next door. Of course, the guy next door probably appreciated it, since it shielded his view of his neighbor's unsightly shack (or is that McShack?)! One man's meat is another man's poison.

Posted by my little acre, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2007 at 1:03 pm

The problem isn't that people need to flaunt their wealth by building garish, oversized homes, but that they want to do so in charming neighborhoods where the houses are more modestly proportioned. Why not take those stock options over to Atherton or Woodside where you can buy a few acres and monster away to your heart's delight? The neighbors won't be able to see your property behind your gates, and the people you want to impress will be ever more impressed by your success.

Your freedom to do what you like with your property extends only to the point that it impinges on your neighbors' enjoyment of their property. A lot of us don't want to get up in the morning and have to look out of our windows at the ghastly construction of a nouveau riche neighbor who fancies himself the next emperor.

It's quite possible to remodel and enlarge a home while staying true to the character of the neighborhood. (Er,why buy a home in a neighborhood if you don't like the prevailing architectural style?) Just about every home on my street has been extensively remodeled, and there isn't a single house that sticks out. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2007 at 1:15 pm

My neighborhood build-outs enabled some real nice kids to stick around instead of move away to larger houses elsewhere. Perhaps it even enriched the lives of those children to live around an old fuddy-duddy.

Posted by Chris, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2007 at 1:42 pm

My Little Acre

I lived in Palo Alto, in a "modestly proportioned" house in a "charming" neighborhood for 13 years before I decided to tear down my house and build a "garish monster" house.

I've now lived in Palo Alto for 27 years. I guess you want to throw me out and exile me to Woodside even though I like it where I am.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Did it ever occur to you that some of us don't like looking at 50 year old (modest) million dollar tract homes anymore than you say you do looking at our larger houses?

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The "character of a neighborhood" resides much more in the people who live there than it depends on the architectural conformity of the buildings there. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 7, 2007 at 2:01 pm

My Little Acre--in one sentence ("Your freedom to do what you like with your property extends only to the point that it impinges on your neighbors' enjoyment of their property.") I think you summed up the problem here in PA--people have no respect for other's property rights or the right to build what they want on their property, as long as they follow the rules and setback guidelines.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Onlne staff.]

Posted by aw, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2007 at 2:27 pm

For all you AntiMcMansionists: put your own house on the historic list or file a restrictive development covenant on your own deed. Don't just fuss; be altruistic!

Posted by Sandra, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 8, 2007 at 12:44 am

When I think of how aesthetically satisfying a house is, width is more important than length.

Posted by janet, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2007 at 3:45 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2007 at 5:13 am

Here is a link to an article in the Seattle Times from way back when they were using the term "Monster Home". As I re-read through the article, it noted that the long time local Canadians were upset with the massive structures and also the destruction of the trees on the properties, leaving neighborhoods looking barren.

It suggested that newcomers not cut down trees to help ease tensions. You would have to read through the article to find it. It was a very long story in the Sunday Seattle Times.

Web Link

This was during the Hong Kong/Taiwan rush, but many more newcomers from other countries have since immigrated, and built up more of these homes to house their large extended families.

We recently visited Vancouver and were quite shocked at the change in the lovely old neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods looked barren and concrete.

Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. were once famous for their old tree lined neighborhoods, gardens, and modest homes.

This was the first time I heard the term "Monster Home".

Posted by Chris, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 8, 2007 at 8:24 am


I built my house within the guidelines, zoning rules and other regulations in effect when I bought my house. I bought in a place where I, and every one of my neighbors, could improve our properties with these restrictions.

I think rather than destroying my neighborhood, I improved it. I think my neighbors agree - though they would never be so boorish to comment on it if they didn't.

If you want to live in a place where things never change, maybe you would be happier in a planned community where everything including paint color is dictated by community standards. Those kinds of neighborhoods remain just as they were when they were "established" - rather than being destroyed by monstrosities.

For the rest of us, why don't you let us, enjoy seeing our neighborhoods revitalized and changed over time rather than being frozen in time like some museum.

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 8, 2007 at 8:54 am

Janet does a good job in perpetuating the way many PA residents feel about this town--nothing must ever change--things must remain the way they were 50 years ago. If someone moved in to a neighborhood 50 years ago, they assumed (in their mind) that that was a guarantee that nothing would ever change.
If someone builds a new modern home, within the building guidelines of the city that they do not like then it can be classified as a"monstrosity, energy-wasting, privacy invading, habitat destroying McMansion". After all according to soem people once a neighborhood is "established", then it must stay that way in perpetuity.
OF course since we are going down the road of having the neighbors deciding what can be done with someone else's property the question now is which neighbor gets the final say--the one on the left or the right, the on in back or the one across the street? How much say does the neighbor 2 doors down get? The actual property owenr has no say--he should be thankful that the "living in the past" ganag has allowed to move into their "established" neighborhood/.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2007 at 10:53 pm

"The Not So Big House" by Sarah Susanka, an architect, is a great book.

Posted by McTolerance, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2007 at 11:47 pm

You can't always get people to do what you want them to. You might save yourself a lot of aggravation by getting used to that fact. How about getting to know the neighbors inside those ugly houses. This McMansion issue really upsets me because its sad to see people attacking each other over matters of really inconsequential personal taste.

Posted by Joanna, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 9, 2007 at 9:40 am

I'm all for property rights. Whether you want a 50's cookie cutter or a McMansion cookie cutter, it is your business.

What REALLY gets my goat is the quality issue. "Contractors" charge up the nose for something simple, hire people off the street, pay them the minimum, and get really cheap results.

I constantly drive by homes that have uneven stucco, mismatching trim, gaps, whatever. I know the homeowners, rich or not, nice or not, pay a lot of money for their homes. They are getting cheated by the GIANT MIDDLEMAN.

If I hire a contractor, I want to make sure their expertise is being put to use. I hate that FAT spread between what they charge and what they pay out to those who ACTUALLY do the work.

Maybe that is worthy of another thread topic.

McMansions, while they are generally ugly in my taste, are ultimately the property of the owners. Tasteful or not, that's the way it is. I abhor busybodies.

I get ill when I see a beautiful historic home being torn down for a cheap but expensive building. There aren't many homes I would consider saving here, but there are out there. Am I going to stand in front of the bulldozer? Maybe not.

Posted by Squeezed, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 7:24 pm

Hey all, As a homeowner in PA I'm amazed at the diverse points of view expressed here. A couple of things I don't think have been pointed out; first of all there are a lot of regulations in place in this town and anyone who intends to build must jump through a lot of hoops and bribe the city at every step of the way, etc. to get anything built, perhaps that is what leads to this unfortunate style. Also, the more we cram our homes onto small lots the more acreage of beautiful wilderness might be spared further out. If every decent sized home had two or three acres there would be nothing left of the Sierras. Can't we make room for our community members and preserve what's left of unspoiled California? Also, not to be insulting but the older homes in PA are so often less architecturally compelling that older homes in, say, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, etc. I don't understand the Taco Bell trend, but I don't see how it detracts from an area of homes without much style to begin with. Wouldn't it be great if all new homes in PA could have a style worthy of long term preservation?

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 10, 2007 at 7:30 pm

Squeezed--I think you are on to something--older homes in PA are so often less architecturally compelling that older homes in other cities--however since this is Palo Alto an older home must be considered "archtiectually compelling and/or historic"--otherwise the city becomes like any other city and is not "special". So how to help this idea along? Complain and deride all new homes as monster/mcmansions/taco bell homes or any other derogatory term that comes to mind to describe a home that you do not like. look at the worship of Eichler homes. remember the historic ordinance fiasco. It all makes sense now.

Posted by joanna, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 11, 2007 at 6:39 am


thank you for your comments. it would truly be great, "if all new homes in PA could have a style worthy of long term preservation." How to do it? Don't rely on the short term interests of: owner, architect, contractor or city.

There are neighborhoods in other parts of this country that have pretty rigid but sensible rules regarding new buildings. These rules are in place to ensure the ongoing upkeep and style a neighborhood chooses to keep.

They would, let's say, ban poor architecture that does not contribute to the existing or intended style.

Not so simple to do. It has to be done for and by those who have such a vision. Voluntarily.

Posted by Glad for diversity of taste, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:13 am

Wow, just stumbled on this thread. I really like Chris's comment..if you want unchanging control, live in a planned community and live by the rules.

Otherwise, can't you just celebrate the diversity of styles in different neighborhoods? I live on a street with everything from new "mansions" to a tiny 2 bedroom, one bath home meticulously maintained by the elderly couple there.

I LOVE IT! I love seeing the different expressions of humanity on just my street.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:13 am

The idea of tight architectural rules in PA really burns my grits. "Ban poor architecture" - yikes! There are planned communities, gated communities, community associations with restrictive rules, etc. - people who want that sort of thing should go live in one.

Creating something like that in PA would be, I think, the antithesis of what a world-class university town in the heart of the world's innovation capital is about - let a million flowers bloom! If these rules had been in place 50 years ago, for sure there would not have been Eichlers (essentially ticky tacky subdivision look-alikes in the eyes of detractors). Freedom is a little messy folks - I wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2007 at 8:45 am

There are some people here who would ban Christmas/Halloween lights/decorations because they spoil the look of the neighborhood. Is this what we really want?

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2007 at 10:43 am

Resident, I really hope you are exaggerating to make your point. There isn't really a sensible soul in PA who thinks home decorations should be banned/regulated? Is there??

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2007 at 10:53 am

These McMansions are often bought by families moving into the area for the schools. They could afford to move almost anywhere, instead they want PA schools. Consequently, they buy a run down home, raze it (while living elsewhere) then move into a large home for the sake of their kids. When the kids have graduated high school, they will move on, making space for more families to move in.

I know. I have neighbors who moved in during the last school year. They are now living outside PA while their home is being turned into a palace. Money? Doesn't seem to be a problem. Commuting their kids from a city far away, that doesn't seem to be a problem either.

Posted by joanna, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 11, 2007 at 2:18 pm


you misunderstood my post. i'm trying to say that there are planned communities. if some people want to live among buildings that are architecturally significant, then they have to move there.

i think it would be pretty hard to find a group of people willing to live by that thought voluntarily.

Posted by Squeezed, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 11:58 am

Terry, I've seen a lot of gated communities with tight architectural rules and most have been full of homes that, although matching, are not very memorable in terms of their style. In San Francisco, there are many newer homes designed to fit in well alongside homes in the wonderful Victorian railroad flat style that is characteristic of some neighborhoods in that city. If Palo Alto had a style of its own in the way San Francisco does it would be much easier to build new homes in the same spirit. Unfortunately nothing like that happened. Palo Alto has developed in strange spurts of Eichlers, tract ranchers, and scatterings of random design. Since this hodge podge has never been resolved by any unity of vision we have the current system where any time someone wants to build or remodel the neighbors get to weigh in and the bickering begins. I agree that our best recourse is tolerance and celebration of what we have. But if I ever am fortunate enough to build a home here I will do my best to make it tasteful.

Posted by Andrew, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 12, 2007 at 12:21 pm

I agree, these McMansions as you call them aren't very good looking and they do detract from the custom landscape of the old Palo Alto neghborhoods. They look like the tract homes built in every other city, with their fiberglass accents, beige paint jobs, rough stucco and Home Depot landscaping. But in their owner's defense - they're cheaper to build and when you have to pay $1.5 million just for your 6,500 sq. foot lot, there's not much left over to build a custom home, let alone a custom Craftsman home as is the 'norm' in Palo Alto.

And hey...they look a lot better than the Eichlers!

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Squeezed, thanks for the consideration. I will opt for tasteful too. But less as a favor for my neighbors - more just because that's what I like. And I hope they do they same.

I moved to Sili Valley to get a taste of the independent spirit - if that means concrete moderns next to craftsmen next to eichlers next to stucco next to shacks - well, so be it!

Posted by Squeezed, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:52 am

Andrew and Terry, I agree with both of you. Housing is such a huge issue for families all over the world. It's sad to see people with homes criticizing the homes of others. Who knows what anyone has been through or what the house means to them? I live in Palo Alto at great sacrifice to myself and my husband because my experiences in bad schools scarred me for life. I could not let my children go through that. They might be pressured and overworked in the PAUSD schools, but they are not groped in the hallways or forced to fight. And yes, I'd bet the taco bell house is cheaper to build than something more picturesque. I say live and let build.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:03 pm

I disagree that McMansions look better than Eichlers. I realize Eichlers have their issues as far as actually living in them, heating them, renovating them, but they're quite elegant and streamlined. Also, architecturally consistent.

I have a couple of issues with McMansions--one is, yes, the size of the house for the lot. But more to the point is a lot of them are aesthetically bad.

What do I mean by that? Well, the features are often way out of scale. Doors that would look fine on a wider house, take over half the front of a tall, narrow house. I see jumbles of window styles--a rectangle here, a circle over there, a square over there. And too large and many for the facade.

And then there are the columns--squat, wide columns meant to ape the bungalow vernacular, but come off as squat and awkward. It comes off as busy, busy, busy. There's no flow and no aesthetic order.

Inside, the houses aren't as bad--more nondescript. Though, once again, you see the size problem--narrow rooms, awkward spots where there was an attempt to cram in all trendy features into a large house with a small footprint. The flow can be, though not always, poor.

There are some well-designed new houses in Palo Alto--I make a note of them just because they're the exception--and there are lots of forgettable ranch houses. I really don't miss the tiny ranchers that have been torn down on Colorado and only about half of the McMansions on the street make me roll my eyes. Some of them are fine.

There is one other factor with the tear-down mania though that I've not seen mentioned--and that's the environmental cost of new construction. That stuff has to go somewhere and it takes up a lot of space. Environmentally, it's better to renovate or do what's done in Japan, which is to really recycle just about everything.

You may own your 5,000-square-feet, but you're not self-sustaining. So I think it's not fully sensible to pretend what's outside those 5,000 is irrelevant. (And, no, I wouldn't hassle you about ugly design if you built your McMansion next door to me, but I would get upset if you shaded my vegetable garden.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:36 pm

Well OP, I guess you won't be buying a so-called McMansion. But I doubt the folks who own them think much of the aesthetics of your house either ;-)

The idea that Eichlers are more than just post-war subdivision ranches seems like a PA fantasy - but hey, that is just my opinion and obviously others think otherwise. To each their own!

The idea that big houses are somehow environmentally "wrong" - I totally don't get that. Are we all ready to move into 1000 sqft low ceiling shacks? Who decided what "too big" is?

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 2:49 pm

Hi Terry,

Aesthetics is not entirely subjective as you suggest. The proportions that are considered attractive are consistent--having been codified by the Ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Japanese, Palladio, etc.

Silicon Valley does not have a strong visual orientation. You see this in how people dress--it's very low-key, quite standardized--amazing when you think of the amount of money here and the sophistication and education of the population.

I think, also, that a lot of people *know* that their big houses, while comfortable and well-appointed, aren't really that beautiful. I think it's why they feel so defensive about them and why architectural details, like bungalow pillars and Tuscan villa arches, are planted on what are basically stucco boxes. People want their homes to look like buildings they find attractive and welcoming.

But when the scale's off or the detail doesn't fit with the rest of the building's vernacular, the effort fails and it just doesn't look right. Which becomes very apparent when the house sits on the market at the time of resale.

With all the new houses around here, you think there'd be some award-winning ones, but there aren't. And I think that's less about bad taste than ignorance--I mean how many new-home builders around here are well-versed in architecture?

My point about the environment wasn't directly a comment on size, but the habit of dusting houses and replacing them. That's a lot of garbage. A house worth's, in fact, aside from what's used to create the new house.

Larger houses are expensive to heat and power, though that can be compensated for--that's not my big concern about them in PA, where they're infill, replacing another building. Also, you can design a house of any size around here that requires little heating and no air-conditioning.

As for Eichler's, compare them to some other post-war housing--such as the rectangular boxes in Sterling Gardens (Greer/Loma Verde)--no atriums, no indoor/outdoor room flow, no construction of neighborhoods with community centers.

Eichlers are small--and I think much of the dislike of them is that people pay a ton for houses that were never meant to be expensive.
With an Eichler, you get the great room feel--open kitchen, living room and dining area, usually looking out on a back wall of windows. This makes the house seem larger and takes advantage of California's weather--it's indoor/outdoor living.

Little space is wasted inside Eichlers--unlike Sterling Garden homes, there are no long hallways taking up valuable space. Clerestory windows in the bedrooms facing the street provide light without sacrificing privacy and wall space--a particular nice thing since Eichler bedrooms are small.

Even the radiant heat was great when it worked--good idea not well executed. No point putting in something that can't be easily repaired.

So, really nice form following function and economical building at the time. I've notice Eichler owners don't tend to change their floorplans--they do additions, but the central lay-out flows really well.

As for McMansion owners and my house--one came over and praised it though, yes, it was small for his tastes (he'd left the Bay Area to buy 4,000-footer out-of-state. It's an older house with curbside appeal--in other words, it has some of those details that McMansion builders like to enlarge and put on houses to give 'em that homey look. (No credit due me, by the way, like most people around here, we bought the house because we could afford it and our bid was accepted. I was willing to live with any architectural style or nonstyle.)

Posted by Parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2007 at 5:03 pm

OhlonePar, I will make my request (again). Please consider running for City Council or The School Board.
If not this election, perhaps in the future. You have my vote.

Terry, you mentioned that you moved to "Sili" valley, but you seem to be unhappy and critical with everything here.

Perhaps this area is not right for you.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 6:52 pm

Parent, on the contrary I find it fine here. It seems like some others are complaining about the new houses going up - maybe they will move ;-)

I am ok with both the new and old, just wouldn't want to live in a suburban tract house personally (Eichler or otherwise). As the tune goes, "they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." Just not for me.

OP, you may feel the ancient Greeks cracked the code with the Golden Mean. Others may just like big houses. Some may like Eichler's open floor plan - others may find it just dated. To each his/her own, I say.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:33 pm


It's not just the golden mean. My point is that aesthetics aren't simply personal--there's a history to it and culture's are defined by it. There are rules--you may not agree with them, but they're there.

What I see here is a mish-mash--the desire for particular details clashes with overall design. It's not rule breaking as much as a combination of limitations (space, cost) bumping up against semi-defined notions of what looks good (Tuscan villa, Cape Cod). It just doesn't work.

The Eichler's open floor plan is one of the least dated things about it--the great room is something that is currently extremely trendy. You'll see it any McMansion worth its stucco. Eichler pretty much co-opted the architectural currents of the time and turned them into affordable housing. McMansions don't do this--they grab a bit here and there and, as I say, put it on a stucco box. There's not a lot of integrity to the overall design.

Size is one issue, but this is apart from that. I've seen beautiful large houses from a variety of time periods. The houses being built should be better looking.

I don't live in an Eichler, they're not, in fact, my personal favorite style. However, I do understand why they're admirable from an architectural point-of-view.

You tell me McMansions are big and people who want bigger houses should be able to have them. Okay. But can you tell me why the McMansion style is attractive? Can you defend the aesthetic with something more than people have their own tastes and they're better than Eichlers?

Parent, I never thought my comments on the flow of Eichlers would make me look good as a political candidate. <g>

Posted by Eichler dweller, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:43 pm

I live in an Eichler and pretty much chose it for its location and price rather than anything else. It is the most ugliest house I have ever lived in. I do agree that there is a flow in design which makes living here pleasant, it does have great views of the backyard, but that is about it.

From the curb it has no appeal whatsoever. I have had visitors coming all the way around the house as they can't find the front door. I feel claustrophibic in the bedrooms when I can't see out the windows and it is ridiculous to me that I can't see what is going on in the street outside my house without going out there.

These houses were designed with cheap heating and materials in mind. Just about everything that is in them which is original is below code. These houses are just cheap tract housing and were designed from the inside out to feel good emotions rather than for those who take a pride in the frontage of their homes.

I respect those who like them, but calling them architecturally appealing is ridiculous.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:59 pm

Eichler dweller and Terry,

What comes across to me is a resentment of Eichlers because they're tract homes. That they're considered well-designed tract homes in architectural circles doesn't mean they're not tract homes.

And it's galling how much one has to spend to live in a tract home around here when the same money buys a mansion almost anywhere else.

Eichler dweller, would you hate your Eichler if you could afford to move to a house that's what you wanted or would you see it as a nice home to remember?

I just feel that there's a lot of frustration in Palo Alto because most of us spend so much for so little.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 8:03 pm

I have a different view, OP - I think aesthetics are personal and always changing. You like vanilla, I like chocolate - that's why they call it "taste." New styles come along in art and architecture, food and fashion, music and writing; some folks think they are horrible and denigrate them as tasteless, others love them, often along generational lines. The new gets old, then it's re-cycled and comes into vogue again.

Why are McMansions attractive? In my mind, that's the same as asking "why do some people like them," since there's no absolute standard. I don't prefer the style personally, but I suppose because they look big and new; they have lots of space inside, big atriums, cool lighting, high cielings, fancy appliances, usually imposing front doors. I actually like the Doric columns, too ;=)

The issue of architectural "uniformity" is itself interesting. I actually prefer living in a more eclectic place, where people's houses and yards express themselves (in one way or another). I came from a town with brick colonials and the occasional Victorian, long green lawns, and rhodies for foundation plantings. Looked "classic" but dang it got boring.

You think the mish-mash "doesn't work" - I actually like it is fine and chose a neighborhood that was a mish-mash over the more uniform ones. To each his or her own!

Posted by Eichler Dweller, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2007 at 8:12 pm

I didn't say that I hated my house, just consider it ugly and has many downsides.

Yes, I would prefer to live somewhere else, but that isn't always practical.

There are lots of things I like about my home, but as with any home, it is just a house in which I live and it is my family, my memories and my attitude that makes it home. No, I do not picture myself living here until my dotage, but it is convenient for the way I live at present. I will remember it with fondness, not for the bricks and mortar (what bricks?) but for the part it has played in my life.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 8:54 pm


So there's no qualitative difference between a da Vinci and a Leroy Nieman?

The mish-mash to which I was referring wasn't the overall look of the neighborhoods but in the architecture of individual houses.

Basically, you defended McMansions by bringing up attributes that could belong to any large house--though I've not seen any with atriums--nothing distinctive about them. Which sort of says it all.

I could see a house having everything you mention, but still being attractively and thoughtfully designed. I think though that can mean not having the utmost bang for the buck and allowable square footage. McMansions sometimes strike me like a woman in a minidress and stilettos and a slinky cut and a low neck and big hair and tons of jewelry. Take a couple of things a way and what's left looks a lot better. You don't need five different window shapes and maximum footage and columns and stained glass and . . .

Eichler Dweller,

I can understand why you'd like a house where you could see the street from a window. I wouldn't say Eichlers have no curbside appeal, but, yes, several (not all) groups of them were designed so as to be shut off from the street. On some streets that would be great--Middlefield and Embarcadero, say, but I could see where that would be onerous. One owner's privacy is another's obstruction.

But I'd still say they're a lot more attractive than the rectangles of Sterling Gardens. The main thing I can say for those is that they take add-ons fairly well--they're so simple that they're sort of a natural beginning point.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 9:10 pm

Well OP, we disagree. Your "thoughtful design" is somebody else's "boring." You describe a dressing style you don't like; there are plenty of people who do like it and would not think much of yours (whatever it might be).

The thing I don't get is why you think your taste is "better" than someone else's. It's just different. I'm glad you like your stuff. No need to dump on others.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2007 at 9:28 pm

Although perhaps not so pretty (in the traditional sense) on the outside, homes designed by Eichler are very nice and unique.

I grew up in one. It was built in 1954, and was nearly 2,000 sq. feet. The copper pipe radiant heat still works great, and it required maintenance only once. My mother replaced something on it only because she was told it was old and probably needed to be replaced.
We were never without heat!

The generous overhangs kept the house cool in the summer, and protected the thick glass windows from rain.

The original stainless steel stove, pizza ovens, and dishwasher all worked when we sold the home.

We have been friends with the new owners who are enjoying the home now. Our new (circa 1932) old home does not compare to the thoughtful design layout that Eichler put into this particular model that he built. Unfortunately, at the time, many people could not afford the high price of $37,000 or $42,000 that my parents paid, and Eichler was not able to sell many of these higher end homes. The beams were made of huge redwoods and the paneling was gorgeous redwood. My parents never painted the interior walls and enjoyed the beauty of the natural wood. The floors were cork in the entry and living room, and they still look beautiful to this day.

Our friends from the East Coast always admired our home because they had never seen anything like them back East.

Radiant heat spoiled me. Air conditioning and fans were not necessary.

Many of the older homes do not need air conditioning. We are thankful to the mature trees around our small home to provide cooling shade and privacy.

The owners of the newly built homes will need to use their air conditioners until their trees and landscape become mature(35-40 years or more should do it).

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:52 pm

it nevers ceases to astound me how so many people assume air conditioning is necessary around here and an automatic given for the so-called mcmansions (or any new construction for that matter). this is one of the most ideal climates around - warm days, cool nights - not the hazy, hot, and humid climate that begs for a/c.

no need to be make snide comments about a/c or landscapes, for that matter. new homes are so well constructed now that the energy usage is often close to the same as the previous, inefficient home - unless the family suddenly doubles in size and all the kids are leaving the lights on or taking 1 hr. showers.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2007 at 12:44 am


It's not my taste, per se. My taste isn't Eichlers. My point is that there are cultural ideas that go beyond personal "taste". I understand what aesthetic was being expressed by Eichler--the ideas.

That's why I brought up Da Vinci v. Leroy Nieman. It's not just a question of personal taste--one is the better artist by several measures.

I'm not inflicting my taste on people, but I am trying to explain why I think McMansions are poor architecture. Doesn't mean you can't build one--again, just as long as your McMansion doesn't wreck my vegetable garden or, in some neighborhoods, destroy a larger architectural whole. And if you manage to build an attractive large house--all the more power to you.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2007 at 1:02 am

I moved from a poorly insulated house to a well-insulated one. It's an incredible difference. Not only is no a/c needed, but neither is opening a window.

It's harder, I think, to design a two-story house that doesn't get overheated upstairs, but I'd like to see good passive ventilation systems become the standard around here. A well-designed house around here doesn't need ac.

Parent, it sounds like you grew up in a great Eichler. I didn't realize there were 2,000 sf. ones around here. I know Greenmeadow has some 1700 foot ones, but that was the largest of which I'd heard.

But that goes to another architectural asset of Eichlers--they were designed for this climate. McMansions tend to look a lot alike no matter where you are, but the U.S. actually has a huge variety of climates and landscapes. There's a lack of integration into the environment.

It's funny, several posters are complaining about how ubiquitous Eichlers are, but there really aren't that many except around here. I don't think there are any north of Redwood City. You don't see them in Berkeley or the rest of the East Bay. It's colder and foggier in Berkeley and the Eichler design isn't a natural for their--much more craftsman and little bungalows. When I first moved here, it was actually really interesting to see houses that were so "modern" and streamlined in feel. The house I grew up in was from the same period, but a much more traditional ranch--shingled, which is something that's pretty common around Berkeley and Oakland and quite uncommon around here.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2007 at 4:29 pm

OP, the idea that one artist is better than another - where's that come from? Who is the duly appointed authority? The "critics"? You? My guess is the velveteen dogs playing poker has sold more copies than the guys you mention ;-)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not the critics or heaven forbid some governmental authority on acceptable styles.

The idea of "wrecking a larger architectural whole" - again yikes! If the neighbors get together to pass a historic district - oh well, there it is. But otherwise, let 'em build their houses (within zoning constraints), and lets enjoy the diversity.

If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Touring the Southern California “Ivies:” Pomona and Cal Tech
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 5 comments | 2,933 views

Chai Brisket
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,094 views

Couples: Parallel Play or Interactive Play?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,252 views

Sometimes "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Cut It
By Cheryl Bac | 7 comments | 1,189 views

SJSU Center for Steinbeck Studies to Honor Author Khaled Hosseini on Weds Sept 10
By Nick Taylor | 0 comments | 736 views