Chevy Chase's Conflict of Size and Sensibilities
Sunday, October 2, 2005
On a recent Monday, while she was waiting for the Venetian blinds guy to come, Nada Davis gave a tour of her home, which is sometimes referred to as a "McMansion" but which is more precisely a new Craftsmanesque house that replaced a Cape Cod about half its size on Leland Street in the Montgomery County suburb of Chevy Chase.
"They tore everything down but the foundation," Davis explained, describing how the old dining room became the foyer, the old garage became the kitchen and part of the back yard became the den. "People walk by and they're like, 'Look at how huge this house is!' And I just don't see it."
She climbed the stairs, stopping at a bedroom -- "See? This isn't so big, is it?" -- and up another flight to the playroom and the office as the tour took on an air of justification.
"I mean, what's so huge about this?" Davis asked, walking back down and through the dining room, the living room, the den and the monochromatic family room seemingly ripped from the pages of a Pottery Barn catalogue. She paused by the open kitchen, where a door led to one more room.
"I feel I should be embarrassed that I need a mud room," said Davis, 42, who moved from Potomac with her husband, a lobbyist for Occidental Petroleum, and their two children. "I just get tired of constantly having to explain myself."
But that is what it means these days to own a relatively large, new house in the town of Chevy Chase, a prosperous enclave of 1,032 homes just across the District line where people who could buy a new Mercedes drive an old Volvo instead and where they generally prefer their 1920s bungalows and painted brick colonials to the larger homes steadily replacing them.
While building a 5,000-square-foot house from scratch is common on the edges of suburbia, it is a more recent phenomenon in close-in suburbs such as Chevy Chase, and this summer, a group of residents there rose in revolt.
At two packed hearings in July, they invoked U.S. Supreme Court cases, Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Augustine's City of God in the name of saving the town's "special character" from houses that are turning it into "any other community in Gaithersburg." Among the arguments were that the new houses hulk over neighbors and create drainage problems, that builders are exploiting zoning rules and needlessly removing trees, causing, as one woman said, "global warming at the village level."
On the other side, builders and town residents invoked property rights and said most of the complainers had additions on their homes. But a six-month moratorium on new construction was imposed anyway -- albeit one called into question last week when a court ruled that the town had overstepped its authority.
Among his reasons, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason noted the "long line of cases that the government may not use its police powers to regulate aesthetics."
Indeed, amid all the arguments this summer, something else has lingered awkwardly in the air: the sense that the debate over mansionization has laid bare a culture clash, an impasse in taste, mores and perhaps even values.
"We believe in 'Don't take up any more space than you need,' " said Don MacGlashan, a moratorium supporter who has lived in the town nearly 30 years. "They obviously feel 'The more the better.' It's a different sensibility, a different worldview. It's conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion."