Two weeks ago, somebody untied Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s $40 million yacht from its mooring. It got me thinking about another opulent display of wealth owned by DeVos: her 22,000-square-foot nautical-themed summer mansion, located in Holland, Michigan. Just a few more years of climate change and it’ll be floating too.
My mission for the past three years as the creator of the architectural humor blog McMansion Hell has been to unpack what makes mansions like DeVos’s so terrible, from both an architectural and social standpoint. It’s bad enough that we have a president who oversaw a massive redistribution of wealth toward the already wealthy through tax breaks. What’s worse is that obscenely wealthy people like him waste all their money building pseudo-castles and other eclectic tragedies, all while wagging their finger at the rest of us telling us to eat cake.
Trump official and fellow rich person DeVos just rolled back Obama administration loan forgiveness rules for students defrauded by for-profit colleges. It’s unsurprising that she doesn’t want to forgive the student loan debts of those defrauded by for-profit colleges considering that she got her net worth of more than $1 billion from her husband’s company, the multilevel marketing giant Amway, which is often described as a cult. Meanwhile, her brother Erik Prince owns the Blackwater firm, which essentially sells mercenaries. As we can see, we are not dealing with nice people.
As someone who owes tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, getting paid to make fun of DeVos’s tacky seaside decor is one of few ways to both feed myself and make myself feel better. With that, I’d like to dedicate this essay to all of the public school teachers who taught me how to write.
Betsy’s house is, in general, a mess. The home attempts to play on the historical American school of architecture known as the shingle style. This style, often seen by historians as a combination of the emerging Arts and Crafts movement and 19th-century eclecticism, is known for its extensive use of shingles as a building material and its multi-massed (massing is a fancy word for a building’s three-dimensional forms) architectural complexity. Betsy likely went with this style because it is very popular in New England and in coastal enclaves of the rich and famous in general.
Even though Betsy is riffing on the shingle style, there is a difference between architectural complexity and a mess, just as there is a difference between a masterful use of vocabulary and replacing every word in a sentence with the longest synonym you can find in the thesaurus.
Betsy’s house looks like a compound of multiple unfinished parts, and nothing about its hulking facade really gels. This is partially because it has no fewer than 13 window styles — yes, I counted them — and because each of the wings of the house tries (perhaps intentionally) to be very visually different from the next.
For example, why is there a massive turret tacked on as if they couldn’t quite commit to a separate lighthouse? The house’s roofline somehow includes three separate roof types (clipped gable, dutch gable, and hipped)? Why are some columns stone and others wood? Why do none of the doors seem to be the front door? (Is there even a front door?) It’s a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and none of those cooks are good at their job.
I don’t know how much this house cost, but according to the topical website PriceyPads.com, the house has three bedrooms and 10 bathrooms, three kitchens, eight dishwashers, 13 porches, and an elevator. Something about that ratio of bedrooms to dishwashers seems off to me, but what would I, a mere wretch, too dumb and poor to avoid being exploited by the predatory cost of higher education, know?
While the repairs are underway on one of her 10 boats, maybe poor Betsy can spare some of her precious time (otherwise spent being the villain of a Charles Dickens novel) reading essays like M.H. Miller’s in The Baffler, which describes in detail the toll student loan debt repayment takes on working families. Or she could take a gander at a recent Time article about how an entire generation of people have negative wealth.
In America, the rich get richer, and the poor have to beg the federal government to forgive the debts they owe to predatory for-profit colleges run by the rich who keep on getting richer. What do the rich do with all their money? Build horrific monstrosities with eight dishwashers and dismantle the public school system.
Architecture is never a vacuum. This house sucks, but like all buildings, it is a reflection of both the people and the broader culture that make building it both possible and desirable. Those, too, irrefutably suck.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, a freelance design writer, and contributor at Curbed. Kate is $42,000 in student loan debt for her MA in architectural acoustics from Johns Hopkins University.