In replicas of famous homes, imitation can be the sincerest form of excess

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, July 4, 2010

The decision to live in an exact replica of the White House or Mount Vernon or some other iconic American home seems a bit like the decision to join the Marine Corps. For many people, it's an extension of patriotism. But there's also an element of pure, inexplicable, what-the-hell bravado. One day you wake up and realize: It's time.

Fred Milani, a home developer who built himself a 16,500-square-foot, one-third-scale version of the White House in Atlanta, puts it this way: "It is a house, my house. What can I say? It is a good feeling. It is a good house."

Replicating famous buildings is neither a recent phenomenon nor a peculiarly American one. Many of the mansions that line Fifth Avenue in New York and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington are more or less loosely based on famous European prototypes.

Almost as soon as Americans earned enough to move out of primitive log shelters, builders were replicating the details and general outlines of earlier houses, using pattern books that communicated architectural ideas to builders who were essentially craftsmen.

Building replicas, however, seems to have something to do with an excess of money and not a lot of imagination when it comes to flaunting it.

The famous French architect François Mansart did a pretty bang-up job when he designed the Château de Maisons outside Paris in the middle of the 17th century. And rather than build something new, Chinese real estate magnate Zhang Yuchen decided to park his zillions of yuan (made in the real estate boom of the 1990s) in a hotel that is an exact copy of Mansart's baroque masterpiece.

Using the original plans and importing the same stone from France to a suburb of Beijing, the Communist Party member reproduced the structure -- and then added two wings copied from the Palace of Fontainebleau near Paris.

Near Hangzhou, another Chinese plutocrat has reproduced the White House, in full scale, with a mini-Mount Rushmore nearby (one-third scale).

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Cultural ambition generally plays some role in these quixotic endeavors, as it did in what was probably the first full-scale replication of Mount Vernon, built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. States were invited to contribute representative pavilions to the fair, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in what Europeans (without irony or shame) called "the New World."

For its building, Virginia reproduced Mount Vernon, inside and out, down to the last detail, including the oddly asymmetrical window arrangement that reflects the expansions of the original house made by its owner, George Washington. African American actors were hired to staff the building to reproduce the domestic life of the country's most famous slave owner.

Lydia Mattice Brandt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is studying reproductions of Mount Vernon, which were built for no fewer than six major expositions and fairs. The choice of Mount Vernon, Brandt says, reflected a Southern desire to lay claim to the nation's founding father, reassert the South's fundamentally American identity and "embody both post-Confederate pride and an agreeable vision of a new South for a national audience."

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