January 22, 2018
Have you ever seen a building and had something about it rub you the wrong way, but you can’t explain it? Well, today’s guest may be able to help you find the right words. Kate Wagner runs the popular blog McMansion Hell, which takes a comedic approach to dissecting modern suburban architecture, as well as offering informative essays on urban planning and other architectural concepts, including historic preservation. We talked about the blog, how a building can earn the title “McMansion,” and where these buildings fit in a larger historic context. This is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] Have you ever seen a building and had something about it rub you the wrong way but just can’t explain it? Well, today’s guest may be able to help you find the right words. Kate Wagner runs the popular blog, McMansion Hell, which takes a comedic approach to dissecting modern suburban architecture as well as offering informative essays on urban planning and other architectural concepts including historic preservation. We talked today about the blog, how a building can earn the title of a McMansion, and where these buildings fit within a larger historical context. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today in studio by Kate Wagner who is the creator of the viral blog, McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest buildings from top to bottom all while teaching about architecture and design. Outside of her blog Kate is a guest contributor to Curbed, 99% Invisible, and Architectural Digest. In addition to writing about architecture, she’s worked extensively as a sound engineer with expertise in recording engineering, product development, and research. She is currently a graduate student here in Baltimore at the John’s Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory where she is studying acoustical studies, a part of a joint program there with her focus in architectural acoustics. So it’s a pleasure to have you here today, Kate. We’ve been looking forward to this interview.
[Kate Wagner] Thank you. It’s great to be here.
[NR] So I feel like 2017 you would have had to have lived under a rock if you were on the Internet and didn’t see McMansion Hell, which has got to feel pretty cool that everybody is reading and I guess nodding along with what you’ve been writing about. But before we jump into that where did your interest in architecture come from? Where’d you grow up? What got you into this?
[KW] Well, when I was a kid I was always interested in architecture. Like most little girls I was obsessed with houses. Anytime being in the car, nose pressed to the glass, looking outside house after house after house. And it didn’t matter what kind of house it was, all the houses were equally interesting. That sort of brought into a greater architectural knowledge when I was in middle and high school when I went to Goshen, New York, for my mother’s family reunion and there was building there that was unlike any building that I had ever seen, which was the Paul Rudolph Goshen Government Center or the Orange County Government Center, which has now, of course, been partially demolished. And that fight actually for preservation was one of the first instances in which I was writing about architecture for essays for English classes and communications and all this other extracurricular stuff. And when I was in high school I wanted to study to be an architect, which is funny because my advisor at the time said, “Your math scores aren’t good enough.” I had A minuses [laughter]. And, “You didn’t take calculus in high school so you can’t be an architect.” It was like, “Ah, that’s stupid. Architects take calculus in college.”
But anyway, I went to go to music school to be a composer because I had been playing the violin since I was four years old. And when you’ve been doing something that long it becomes inevitable that that’s just what you’re going to do… is kind of how that works. This is why 18-year-olds should never make decisions [laughter]. But when I was there I started working in concert halls as a recording engineer. I was more interested by how sound worked in the spaces and halfway through my college career I decided I wanted to work on buildings. And I wanted to work in buildings and have a hands-on experience with making places that sound great and so I decided to pursue a career in architectural acoustics. Before that though, of course, all during this time I was writing about architecture in private or for academic papers relating to music and architecture.
[NR] Right, not really a big public audience at that point.
[KW] I had some small pseudo blogs that you have, you know, when you’re a teenager.
[NR] Yeah, yeah. Your LiveJournals.
[KW] Oh, exactly. Oh, God, that is a long time ago. LiveJournal…
[NR] I guess I’m showing my age [laughter].
[KW] No, me too. I was on LiveJournal, so I mean, we’re probably not that much different. But during the summer between college and grad school I had this idea that I wanted to do an ugly-house blog because I figured that there really kind of wasn’t an ugly-house blog that explained why the houses were ugly. There were two blogs, at the time, that were kind of influential. One of them was [Ugly House Photos], which is a treasure trove, believe me, Houses from Heck. And then there was Ugly Belgian Houses, which focused on exteriors. And the ugly Belgian houses, to me, I don’t necessarily think that those houses are ugly in the same way the McMansions are. But they’re just kind of odd.
[NR] So, why don’t we – you’ve dropped the word there, McMansion. How would Kate Wagner define a McMansion?
[KW] It’s kind of interesting because there is this definition of a McMansion that sort of came out in the 1990s that was basically describing cookie-cutter houses that were kind of oversized. What McMansion Hell focuses on is not necessarily those houses, which are houses that that people who may not have that much money, actually have. You’ve seen them, the big boxes with vinyl siding and they’re not very interesting. But they’re big and people were making fun of them in the 1990s and 2000s. But the houses on McMansion Hell, I think, go beyond that. These are houses that are basically custom built by builders in conjunction with homeowners. That’s why the layouts and the forms are so erratic because, essentially, there isn’t any kind of architectural mind involved that is making something that is all these disparate interior volumes into a cohesive whole. And so, because of that you get these large and grandiose houses that make no architectural sense.
[NR] Yeah, I mean, you look at these things, and everyone has seen them. I think it’s interesting to hear that distinction between sort of, yeah, a cookie-cutter vinyl home, which a lot of people, there’s no choice. Some people just have to live in those places.
[KW] Exactly, yeah.
[NR] And the things that you’re pointing out, which are sort of the next step where it’s like, I want this vinyl cookie-cutter thing but I have a lot of money and I’m going to make it into this… I want every little bell and whistle that goes on it. But they don’t follow any form or function and so you end up with these things that don’t make a lot of sense.
[KW] Yeah. And also, I would say that… I mean, the price range of the houses that are featured on the blog, these are not middle-class houses. These are houses that were, usually the minimum price range is like $500 thousand or more, which this is all dependent on geography. In states where the home prices are more expensive, the houses that are on the blog are usually in the millions.
[NR] And so, do you – I mean, from a preservation standpoint, obviously, we think that there’s a lot of value to historic architecture. Do you think it’s a contrast for people? Are you trying to kind of draw that out, that there was something good and decent about well-designed and well-balanced architecture like we would find in a historic period versus what we’re getting now? I mean, is that one of the takeaways from the blog, I guess?
[KW] I mean, for me, I think there’s a sense of disappointment, which is all throughout architectural history, if you had a lot of money and you were a member of the elite you would hire an architect to basically build a house. By doing that, that architect would usually further the architectural art, right? Ever since Hadrian’s Villa – which of course, Hadrian himself invested in – up until around the 1970’s most of the major glamorous homes that were featured or owned by celebrities were designed by architects.
There was this kind of interesting transition in the 1980s where people with money started to hire custom builders instead of architects and decided that because they had more money, and therefore more agency, that they wanted to have exactly what they wanted. They didn’t want to have to kowtow to an architect whose vision was holier-than-thou. And so what you see is houses from the ’70s that are large still have kind of architectonic elements. There is a kind of plan and layout and there’s a degree of detailing that you just can’t find even a decade later as far as sophistication is concerned.
[NR] Yeah. And it also does beg kind of the next preservation question, which is at some point are we going to have to preserve these places? Is it going to be its distinct style that needs preservation because it’s a moment in time?
[KW] I think what’s interesting is that even in the latest edition of Virginia McAllister’s Field Guide to American Houses, she has a small chapter at the end about what she calls the Millennium Mansion, which is pretty much essentially the same thing as a McMansion. And she has already sort of partly taxonimized the houses in that chapter and this was released in 2013. Whether or not that’s a call for preservation, I don’t know, but that’s one of the biggest books that people get. That’s one of my favorite books.
[NR] Sure. And it might be hard to preserve these places because I’m not sure that they’ll last fifty years.
[KW] I would compare the situation to the kind of minimal, traditional architecture of the early FHA suburbs where it’s more of a moment, not necessarily in architectural time, but it’s part of the American history of living. In that you’re talking about at the time of these first-generation, post-war suburbs, the kind of financing that was being put forth was radically different than what was happening before, as far as how the federal government funded all of these places and the suburbs, and how mortgages were restructured, and all this other stuff. But McMansion is another development in that kind of economic –
[NR] Right. It’s not so much about the architectural value, but it’s more about its moment in time and its place in American history.
[KW] Exactly. Yeah, if the little boxes – from the song – are a testament to post-war bucolic, White flight, all of these things that you talk about in U.S. history class when you’re talking about the ’50s, the McMansion has sort of become emblematic of the Great Recession. There’s not really that much correlation between buying McMansions in the crash of 2008, but to some extent, they have become visually scapegoated with the fallout.
[NR] Yeah. And I guess maybe some excess, too. So sort of a more trivial question, but of all the things that you see on McMansions, what is the thing that bothers you most?
[KW] Oh. that’s really hard. Probably the roof lines because they’re just so insane. And they’re like for reasons that – as far as I can understand – one is them is that there are internal volumes that are desired by the homeowner, such as vaulted, cathedral ceilings on the second floor, but not in every room, and so you can’t generate any kind of consistent roofline. And also, if you do have vaulted ceilings or something like that on the second floor and you still want an attic space, that can add another weird volume to the roof. And also running conduit and all this other stuff, sometimes there are just corners that are cut as far as contracting is concerned, which is why on these top floors you’ll see those regular ceilings that just make no sense, that are constantly slanting everywhere. And usually, there’s something behind there whether it’s electrical conduit, plumbing, something like that that is causing that shape to be concealed to be in that way.
[NR] Yeah. And if people who are listening want to get a visual sense of what we’re talking about, you can go to Kate’s website McMansion Hell and take a look at it there. Why don’t we take a quick break? And then we come back, we can talk a little bit about how the blog has resonated, some responses you’ve gotten, and where you’re headed next, and we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Nick and Kate are talking about McMansions, homes that have earned the prefix “Mc” because they are arguably too large and built quickly from inexpensive materials. The practice of using “Mc” as the prefix obviously arose from a specific fast-food hamburger restaurant chain. But for a large part of the twentieth century, it was nearly ubiquitous with fast food, and hamburgers, and restaurant chains. Considering their nearly 37,000 locations of this particular fast food hamburger restaurant chain worldwide, I’m not too worried about buzz marketing them. That’s why today, we’re talking about a brief history of McDonald’s.
Despite being one of the most recognizable company names in history and nearly being synonymous with globalization and the spread of American capitalism around the world, very few restaurants were actually owned or operated by the McDonald brothers. The first McDonald’s store was technically opened in 1937 in a tiny octagonal building that the brothers, Richard and Maurice, operated as a drive-in. They’d sell barbecue to folks in their way to the nearby Monrovia Airport in Southern California. In 1940, the building was moved further inland to San Bernardino. And it was at this new location that the brothers realized just how popular the hamburger was compared to their other BBQ menu items and just how much they could streamline their business if they focused on one sandwich in an assembly line style. In 1947, they shifted from a drive-through model to a walk-up stand and focused solely on hamburgers, potato chips, and orange juice as their only menu items. Coca-Cola and french fries entered the picture a year later.
From this first stand, the brothers decided to franchise their business. And eventually, the owner of the ninth franchise, Ray Kroc, pretty famously pushed the brothers out of their business. Much more so than the brothers, Kroc had a mind to expand on the brothers’ assembly line cooking style and turn the business into the global food superpower that McDonald’s is today. Even going so far as to trademark the name McDonald’s so that when he bought the brothers out of the business, they could not even open a new hamburger restaurant with their own last name.
Kroc’s commitment to speediness and efficiency through mass production extended beyond just food and lead the policies about updating restaurant buildings that eventually led to the demolition of nearly all the early McDonald’s buildings. The oldest remaining and operating McDonald’s was the third restaurant built, which was franchised before Ray Kroc’s involvement in the business. And because it was franchised before Ray Kroc’s company the McDonald’s System Incorporated (now the McDonald’s Corporation) existed, it was able to continue to use the McDonald’s name into the 1980s, despite using the original recipes and not serving many of the signature menu items that came from the larger corporation like the Big Mac. It was the only restaurant with the original name that was independent of the corporation until 1990 when years of competition from a nearby corporate McDonald’s eventually led to the owners selling it to the parent corporation. Then it was nearly torn down. If not for pressure from the public and preservationist in the area who wanted to save the local landmark as a whole building. The effort culminated with its placement on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 1994 List of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and it finally forced the McDonald’s Corporation to restore it and reopen it with an adjoining gift shop and museum. Anyway, that’s enough clowning around for me about fast food. I wouldn’t want to Hamburglar you of any more of your time.
Get back to PreserveCast. Do you have questions? We may have answers. Is there any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and we’ll try to answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today in studio by Kate Wagner, who is the creative mind behind the viral blog McMansion Hell. And she is also a student working towards a graduate degree in acoustical studies as a part of a joint program between the Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory here in Baltimore, where her focus is on architectural acoustics. Kate, before we took our break, we were talking sort of about the blog itself, and how you define a McMansion, and things about McMansions that kind of drive you crazy. But back to the blog. What has the response been? Because I mean obviously, there’s a lot of people who love it, and think it’s funny, and get a good laugh out of it, and sort of nod along like, “Yeah, I’ve been feeling this way all along, too.” Have you heard from people who live in these houses? Have you gotten any nastygrams from people who live in the homes and say, “How dare you make fun of my place?”
[KW] I’ve been pretty blessed in that. The owner hate mob hasn’t really come for me [laughter]. When I did an interview with the Washington Post and I was on video standing in front of people’s houses, which was just slightly terrifying –
[NR] Yeah. A little uncomfortable.
[KW] Yeah. It was very uncomfortable, most of all because it was on camera. There were people in the comments who were so angry. Because these are Washington Post readers and they probably live in the D.C. suburbs, which are a capital, so to speak, of McMansions. And they were calling me everything but a woman [laughter]. I mean it was– but they especially loved to pick on my hair for some reason, which was much to my chagrin. But other than that, I think that when blog first kind of took off, there were some responses like, “These are peoples’ houses. Blah, blah, blah.” But the truth is that the blog is not about people so much as it is about houses, and houses are inanimate objects, and they don’t have feelings. It’s like, “Yes, you can all get on our high horse about, ‘These are peoples’ homes. Blah, blah, blah.'” But you’re not talking about the people who live there because you don’t know who they are. And even if you did know who they are, that’s not fair. That’s bullying.
[NR] Yeah. And then there was also some legal pushback at one point, too, right?
[KW] Oh yeah.
[NR] I don’t know if you can talk about that, if there’s been a gag order or something.
[KW] Oh. Well, I mean [laughter], It’s all in the news that in June, I got a cease and desist from Zillow who was upset that I was using their images and the backlash was huge. Anyways, the Electronic Frontier Foundation came to my aid and they basically released a statement that said, “This is fair use. These images are being manipulated for something that is not for the purpose of selling real estate.” But by that point, it became a PR nightmare for Zillow, and so they stopped and they said, “We’re going to back off on this.”
[NR] Wow. So have you ever heard from them since?
[KW] No one’s going to try anything –
[NR] They’re not sponsoring the blog or anything? [laughter]
[KW] No. No.
[NR] “Brought to you by Zillow.” [laughter]
[KW] No. There are no sponsors on the blog.
[NR] No? Is that by design?
[NR] Because you don’t want to have any -?
[KW] I have a Patreon, so it’s like –
[NR] You have a Patreon? So, if people are into this and want to be supportive, they can do it that way, but you’re not looking for corporate supporters or –
[KW] No. No.
[NR] – architects or anything like that?
[KW] And also, the blog is on Tumblr, which is a microblogging platform. It’s not on a standalone, self-built website and so it’s not conducive to ad revenue or anything like that.
[NR] Yeah. And speaking of that, I mean who is the audience for it? I mean, do you have any sense for who’s looking in?
[KW] It’s really diverse, I think. I mean, of course architects tend to like it because one of the subtexts of the blog is, if you have a lot of money and you want to build a house, you should hire an architect [laughter]. So, of course, the architects have a vested interest in it. People who are into classical architecture have a vested interest in it because classical motifs are, of course, botched on McMansions. But, as far as the design community goes, there’s a lot of support there.
As far as the general audience, it’s interesting because it’s pretty diverse. I’d say the readership is mostly women because it’s about houses. And I would say that, as far as I can tell from Facebook comments, all this other stuff. But I’d say it’s less women than say HGTV or something that’s geared more towards homemaking. I’d say the gender profile of the audience is rather diverse. And, as far as ages go, I think it almost feels like there’s this split where its people on Facebook in the Facebook comments who are mostly kind of older people. But this far as the vast readership, it seems it’s majority people my age or younger.
[NR] Yeah, and do you think it’s causing people to think more critically about architecture? Do you think you’re making any type of shift in that kind of thinking? Do you think that there’s anyone who’s thought about getting a McMansion and then kind of stumbles across that and is like, “Wow, I should get an architect.” Do you have any success stories in converting people from going down this path?
[KW] I have people email me and they’ll ask what they should do or something and I am not a professional architect or anything like that, so I can’t necessarily give them any design advise. But I can say, “What are you trying to do? Do you think we should hire an architect but we want to make sure that that’s the right thing to do.” And yeah, it’s probably the right thing to do. But I get messages all the time where people say that before I saw this I had no idea that these things where bad. But now that I cant un-see any of this [laughter] you’ve ruined everything. It’s true there are people – I just can’t un-see it and now everywhere I go I feel like a little critic and it’s like, “Ah, you can suffer alongside me.”
[NR] Yeah, has the success of the blog changed your career aspirations in any way or is it just sort of a sidelight?
[KW] It’s hard to tell at this point because it’s not even been two years of the blog.
[NR] Oh, really. I don’t think I realized that but I mean, I think the zeal of the thing got you a lot of attention. But I mean, how many people are visiting the blog? Do you know the numbers?
[KW] I know the number of followers on each platform, which at this point it’s – were over 100,000 followers of all platforms.
[NR] But that doesn’t include just the hits you’re getting people just come into it?
[KW] Yeah, I don’t track that stuff but at the same time as far as responses go, Facebook likes, etc, etc. I mean, it’s doing pretty well. What’s interesting though I think is for me, is that it’s given me an opportunity to really expand my writing outside of the blog and to become a sort of a side of a freelance career. As someone who writes for a variety of different publications not only just lifestyle publications but even getting into dabbling, into some politicians and –
[KW] Yes. Which is really, really interesting. The first freelancing I ever did was for 99% Invisible. My job at the company that I was working at was cut and I needed a job, so I posted help I need a job. And they were like, “Well, you should write for us.” So I was writing for them bi-weekly until I could get a more stable income with Patreon, but people have really been receptive to that. And I think that’s through the blog my voice as a writer has really expanded and become more nuanced, and now there are articles that I’m writing for publications that are go-beyond just design media.
[NR] Right. And go-beyond just McMansion critique?
[KW] Yes, it’s very exciting actually. There are certain topics that I have a greater focus of academic expertise in. One of which is late modern architecture and the other is, of course, sounds and acoustic, and all these other things which I write a great number of articles about.
[NR] So what’s the future for McMansion Hell? Are you getting tired of critiquing McMansions? Do you still love it? Are you going to continue on with it? Should we expect a book?
[KW] I took a break at the end of the semester because this previous semester was just – it’s been the ultimate semester in your graduate degree, so it just kicks you around. And so I needed a break so I took kind of a long break from the blog over the winter break, and I’ve just started going back to school now. So things will become more regular again, but as far as this year’s content versus last year’s content there’s going to probably be – it’s not going to be as frequently updated as far as the health posts will still be for the most part once a week. But as far as the in-depth articles they’re going to a bi-weekly basis because they’ve kind of outgrown the scope in which you can write one in a week. As far as a book is concerned I’m in talks about doing a proposal for a book and hopefully everything will go well and there will be a McMansion Hell book within a couple of years.
[NR] So are you going to have a coffee table book of beautiful architecture and the McMansion Hell?
[KW] I think we’re not going to do a coffee table book. I think we’re going to do a cultural history kind of book.
[NR] So this is going to be a serious study.
[KW] A serious book but anything I read can’t be too serious, there has to be some sort of lightheartedness and humor to it. I would say pop architecture perhaps.
[NR] Yeah. We always try and end these interviews and it’s been a lot of fun hearing about this and getting to know you and getting to know the person behind this really popular and successful blog but we’re always curious about favorite historic places and favorite historic buildings and I’m excited to hear your answer on this given what a good critic of architecture you are, what excites you as far as architecture or historic places?
[KW] In general?
[NR] Well, we try and narrow down to a favorite place which is a normally an extremely difficult question for people to answer which is why we ask it.
[KW] Oh, that’s so hard. For me I personally care a lot about salvaging and protecting things that are not the most well-liked because I started writing about architecture to save essentially a Brutalist building that everyone hated and this was in 2010, 2011 when Brutalism was still much aligned, had not yet seen the renaissance that it’s seen today. We all mourn the loss of the Mechanic’s Theater. Essentially for me, that also include things like interiors which I think are underrepresented in preservation, something that we’ve seen now with Philip Johnson AT&T Building where they’re gutting the lobby before the Landmarks Commission could have a hearing. There are those interiors that are snapshots to the past, you walk back in and you’re in another time period and then there are those interiors that are kind of crafted to see more modern needs but try to maintain their sort of integrity which you a lot in much older buildings like banking halls for example from the nineteenth century. It’s hard to say that I have a favorite. There are historic buildings in Baltimore that I’m very fond of.
[NR] Yeah, give us one, what’s a good one?
[KW] Very fond of 10 Light Street actually, every time I see the top I get very, “Oh my God, I’m home.”
[NR] Right and the success of our state historic and federals tax program, a rehab that worked.
[KW] It was in the Art Deco detailing, it’s beautiful. It’s just a really enjoyable building even though it seems it use switched to other things. I had the pleasure of going inside during the last Doors Open, which was very exciting.
[NR] Yeah, with Doors Open for people not in Maryland – I guess it’s a nationwide program but here in Maryland – our architecture foundation runs a program where you can go into historic buildings over a weekend and 10 Light was one of those. So people who are interested in coming and seeing great places it’s always a fun thing to do in the fall. Okay, if people want to get in touch with you or they want to find out more about your blog or they want to read your thoughts and writings where do they find all of that, where is the best place to get you?
[KW] Well, you can find my blog at McMansionHell.com, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter as McMansionHell, all one word. And I have a Patreon if you want to support that which is Patreon.com/McMansionHell, all one word. If you want to Google my articles you can search for Kate Wagner and all kind of things will come up.
[NR] So we appreciate you having you in and appreciate the focus you’re putting on architecture, which makes a case for why we should preserve old things too because there is a value for them and we’re looking forward to seeing what you write next. Thanks so much.
[KW] Thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!