Houses that look like Versailles are generally bad ideas.
Best-case scenario, you reign as the Sun King for decades and bring absolute monarchy to its zenith. Worst-case scenario, someone beheads you, and later generations erroneously attribute rude remarks about cake to your wife.
Yet a resident of the DC suburb of Great Falls is trying to do just that. The Yi family has plans to construct a massive “Chateau de Lumiere” on the lines of the famous French palace.
The original Versailles wasn’t that bad. After all, you had to have somewhere to put all your ornate furniture and full-length oil portraits of yourself in massive wigs. You had to have somewhere to lie in bed while all your courtiers proceeded slowly past you, doing homage.
If you were going to call yourself the Sun King, you had to live up to the title, taking up lots of space and inadvertently encouraging the revolutions of smaller bodies that orbited you.
But the Bourbon monarchs didn’t have the neighbors to consider.
The replica in the D.C. suburbs is facing a battle, after neighbors sued complaining about the plans for the house, an expanse on five acres that will include underground lighting. This, the neighbors’ lawsuit seemed to say, is not How We Do Things Around Here.
The thing about D.C., as Petula Dvorak pointed out, after a socialite’s husband was accused of murdering her, is that it’s a whole city of weirdoes noisily pretending to be normal. In New York and Los Angeles, people cultivate weirdness. Sometimes this is awkward, say if two people show up at a party both dressed as television antennae.
Not so D.C. Here, everyone blends in. Or tries to. McMansions have only recently entered our consciousness. If you had something that set you apart, you didn’t flaunt it. If someone else deviated, you pretended not to see.
Here, people tend to show wealth by slipping up behind you at restaurants and murmuring, “This pen is worth more than your house” in a threatening manner. My point is, it’s more subtle. It’s $200 haircuts and dining with stemware that Alexander Hamilton once squinted at and found wanting. It’s the dog whistle approach to wealth: If you own a yacht, you’ll recognize those shoes.
This is not to say that there are not people who flaunt it. But generally they flaunt it by wandering around in shorts covered in tiny whales or dresses covered in cartoon lemons, the sort of outfit that would make effective camouflage if you were in a neon jungle or a cartoon lemon factory. “These whales were hand-crafted based on a design that came to J. Pierpont Morgan in a dream,” they say.
“Ah,” you say, adjusting your H&M blazer. “This wasn’t.”
“This candlestick is Very Old,” they say, waving it at you. “Ah,” you say.
“Older than sin,” they hiss.
So Versailles seems distinctly out of place. Not to mention, distressingly French.
Generally, people with money spend it on tasteful things like yachts and the ability to use the adjective “sylvan” in their court filings. That’s certainly what D.C. Versailles’ neighbors have done. Their court documents include the allegation that the new building would irreparably damage the “sylvan character” of their neighborhood. Sylvan Character costs real dough. You can't just hire a contractor, hand him untold amounts of money, and have him install sylvan character at the end of your driveway. It takes dedication and persistence.
The complaint isn’t that this will be an eyesore or that it may rile the peasants. It’s not sylvan enough, is all. Maybe this is for the best. If the Bourbon monarchs had had to get the palace through the neighborhood committee, the revolution might have been avoided. Surely the neighbors wouldn’t have signed off on the adjoining model farm where Marie Antoinette went to pretend to be a rustic sheperdess. And that was the sort of thing that really galled the sans-culottes.
But as D.C. becomes an increasingly well-heeled zone, it gets harder and harder to hide. And there are only so many Historical Andirons you can buy before you begin to itch for larger things. The Kardashians have them, after all. You’ve got it. Why not flaunt it? Why bury your light under a bushel basket? Let them eat cake — and have it too!
Just wait until the neighbors hear.