This Old Status Symbol

Summer is here! Therefore, rich New Yorkers are going out to the Hamptons to compete for status. One of the many ways they do so is of course to build big and expensive houses. In the past, competition among the super-rich has inspired America’s most distinctive architectural styles—for example, the famous “Shingle Style”  that became popular in the late 19th century. Today, no less than in the past, the super-rich have embraced a distinctive architectural style. So far it lacks a name. I call it the “Doodad Style.”

Here is a classic example, located in Southampton:

This house has all the elements of the Doodad Style:

1.  First, it combines a plethora of familiar-seeming forms. I count, inter alia, four front-facing gables, a clerestory window, a dormer window, a sort of Queen Anne-style hexagonal tower, and a portico with four columns.

2.  The forms are arranged along a flat plane with little three-dimensional depth. The front porch, for example, looks barely wide enough to accommodate a rocking chair. The tower and the middle gable, grafted together at the base, struggle to obscure each other at the top. Altogether, the structure is not just one house but six: the gabled house on the left, the big two-story box adjoining it, the tower and the middle gable pasted in front of the box, and the two gabled houses on the right. The architect seems to have taken these six houses, lined them up like blocks and pressed them together so that they would all fit into the same lot.

3. Third, the familiar-seeming forms are less traditional than traditionalistic. They are schematics of traditional forms, or degenerate copies of the originals. Take the leftmost first floor window. Its tumid tin-can shape seems to evoke… something. A Palladian window perhaps?  The design is neither interesting nor intelligible, yet recurs six or seven times throughout the structure. It even appears in the porch, perhaps to give the owner a simulacrum of an arched entranceway. (Not that anyone will actually walk through the entrance—it looks instead as if they’ll drive straight into the garage.)

4.  Fourth, for all its many doodads, the shape of the house is quite boring. In essence, it is a long rectangle capped by a squat isosceles triangle—not unlike a large warehouse. If the architect has any imagination or whimsy, he chose not to exercise it here.

5.  Finally, the house has a middle and a top but not a bottom.  Often a vacation home will perch on a large wraparound porch, as do many of

these classic Queen Anne Style houses. Here, the porch is tiny and scrunched behind a tower. Meanwhile, the second story looms taller than the first. The bottom of this house seems to have simply sunken underground. Instead of sipping daiquiris on the porch, the inhabitants must be lying around in the basement playing Nintendo.

In sum, the “Doodad Style” takes a big rectangle and tacks on a bunch of “doodads” to make it look “traditional.” 

Here are some more examples:

You can buy this house in Sag Harbor for $2.2 million. I especially like that funny white doodad in the middle of the left gable. What is that thing anyway? Note also that the tower on the right doesn’t protrude any higher than the roof, as if afraid to break the four corners of the box.

This house in Bridgehampton costs over $9 million, a sum that will apparently buy you some pretty big doodads, including that watchtower thing that landed on the left side of the house. By an astonishing coincidence, the watchtower still doesn’t upset the shape of the rectangle.

This Doodad Style house in Amagansett is on sale for $4.3 million—still not enough to buy a porch wide enough for you to stand on. Turn this picture upside down—the clerestory window looks like a smiley face with two dimples. The oculus windows on the first floor are the eyes! 

This “luxury home” in East Hampton is going on sale for $10.5 million, which evidently is still not enough money to buy a usable porch. The nearest gable as you drive in looks like a mushroom from Super Mario Brothers. The mushroom on the far corner has one good leg and a peg leg to hold up the other side. The ground floor corner where the chimney rises is a tiny shaded enclave with nothing but four blank walls and a post. How delightful! 

I do not know what the Doodad Style says about the richest Americans today. You could see them as victims of architects who have lost the kind of design knowledge that one was commonplace. No Doodad Style home includes a raised front porch, for example, despite that the raised front porch may be the most beloved and successful element of the typical vacation home. (Do building codes now prohibit porches for some reason?) The owners of a Doodad Style do not know whether to be pretentious or refined, to flaunt their money or to hide it. The style that they have embraced is simply pointless.



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