Versailles on the Potomac?
April 26, 2012 By Jennifer 9 Comments
These are some images posted on The Building Group‘s Facebook page, chronicling the preparation of land in Great Falls, VA, for new construction.
So follows the pattern we’ve been seeing for a long time in enclaves such as Great Falls — every affluent ZIP code in the DC region, really — where older, smaller houses are being cleared to make way for bigger ones. This time, however, we’re seeing a whopper replace that old modest home on a five-acre lot on River Bend Road, as we all read about in The Washington Post this week:
The story claims that the landowner, 38-year-old Young Yi, who runs a local chain of sleep-disorder clinics, is building this 25,000-square-foot structure to resemble the Palace of Versailles. She will call it Le Chateau de Lumiere.
Throughout all the Web traffic we’ve see on this house, though, it’s unclear where the Versailles reference comes from — the media or the owner herself. Architect James McDonald, who is designing the house, says his client never used that term when expressing her desires for her new palace, er, mansion, er, chateau. (What DO you call this kind of home in the suburbs??)
For kicks, let’s take a look at the real thing:
But that’s not really the point here. What has everyone so upset — indeed, the reason the story was on the front page — is that neighbors are pushed to the point of litigation in taking offense to the size and scope of this project. When I last checked, there were 800 comments on the Post story.
Here’s a sampling of those comments, beyond the numerous references to guillotines and “off with their heads!”:
“This nouveau riche excrescence in a neighborhood of comfortably large homes does the legendary Versailles no honor and would be more appropriate to Las Vegas.”
“Perfectly degenerate vulgarity.”
“If nothing else, they might make a fine setting for a Gothic horror story in 50 years or so.”
“My housewarming gift will be a cake and a copy of Tale of Two Cities. Build your house in Potomac or Bethesda where it fits in, Young Yi. Not in Great Falls.”
But that’s the thing — these homes are going up everywhere, and Great Falls is already full of them. Maybe not this large, but these nouveau chateaux, especially in areas such as Great Falls and Potomac where lots are generally bigger, are becoming rather common.
“The reality of the project is it’s got a not-so-unique exterior, but’s it’s caught some attention,” McDonald told me. “There are some other homes that are equally as detailed if not larger.”
Mike Mafi, who owns The Building Group, which is building Le Chateau de Lumiere, has come to specialize in this style. I suppose we can all crow about it as much as we want, but Mr. Mafi wouldn’t be in business if there weren’t a strong market for this gilded-age style. Here are some other homes to his credit, which are featured on The Building Group Web site:
Towlston Road, Mclean (10,000 Sq. Ft)
Elizabeth Street, Great Falls (14,000 Sq. Ft)
Crowell RD, Vienna (12,500 Sq. Ft)
Regardless of what owners do with large open spaces such as this one from the Vienna home,
or this one from the Great Falls mansion,
the fact remains that in these times, large lots demand large homes — simply because it makes no sense in today’s economy to build a 2,000-square-foot home on five acres.
“There is a relationship between land value and house size. When you are buying a lot in the neighborhood of 1 million dollars you do not put a 2,000 s.f. home on it. You will not be able to resell the home for the proper value. The price of land has pushed the sizes of homes up,” McDonald said.
I’m not sure it necessitates pushing home sizes to 25,000 square feet, but there you have it. My knee-jerk reaction to this house was of shock that such a design would exist HERE, in staid Great Falls. But there again, McDonald replied, “Today, large homes are being built with 10’, 11’, and 12’ ceilings, and being designed with much more variety in style. Twenty years ago everything in Northern Virginia was Colonial in nature. That does not mean good colonial design or well proportioned design. Homes were designed with a suburban refection of colonial architecture.”
One commenter on the Post article agreed: ”Taste is in the eye of the beholder. I personally think every side-hall colonial and raised ranch built in suburbia during the last 40 years are pretty tasteless, but there are certainly a lot of them out there.”
I wrote a story for the Post a couple years ago about a community in Potomac called Merry-Go-Round Farm, which holds every landowner to strict guidelines on the virtues of a home’s architecture, no matter the genre. (You can see the story here.)
Styles are all over the place there, but each design requires the approval of an architectural review board.
“We started out to do something significant architecturally at Merry-Go-Round Farm,” said Tyler Abell, who subdivided his family’s land overlooking the Potomac River to create this development. “The normal Potomac architecture is so awful, it’s hard to describe.”
Merry-Go-Round Farm is the only recent development of its kind that I know of in which people building big homes are dedicated to staying true to classical architecture. The “awful” stuff, thus, is not awful to a lot of people who are obviously purchasing those other homes along River Road, say, or Georgetown Pike.
Circling back to Le Chateau de Lumiere, I’ll be interested to see what the finished rooms look like, if they are ever published.
I e-mailed Mr. Mafi to get his take on where design is headed in the land of huge houses, but I didn’t get a response. He did tell the Huffington Post that “It’s not really one of the hugest houses on the East Coast … Of course it is a big house, but it isn’t one of the biggest houses.”
Interestingly, he’s also building a 16,000-square-foot house across from this one, he told the Huffington Post. ”They’ve raised complaints about that one, too,” he said, according to the Web site.
A lot of people are saying they don’t want Beverly Hills or Miami to encroach on our neighborhoods, but look at the numbers: DC is home to five of the country’s 10 richest counties. And with wealthy people pouring in from so many different cultures and parts of the country — and the world — it was bound to happen.
“Great Falls has gone through a transition of people,” said McDonald, who also lives there. “Over the last 10 years a lot of the older homes are being redeveloped. The speculative homes will always be a little more market-conservative to appeal to a larger market. Custom homes will, and should, always reflect what the client is looking for.”
That said, he would not share any details about what Young Yi is specifically looking for at Le Chateau de Lumiere.
Mafi’s wife, Mandy Mafi, will be decorating the house for Yi and her family. “It’s going to be prettier than the White House,” she wrote on Facebook.