A Photo Essay From L.A.'s Mansionization Front Lines

"Mansionization" is the name given to the increasingly common practice of tearing down a smaller house and building a much larger, more expensive one on the same lot, often to the detriment of next-door neighbors who suddenly find themselves deprived of sun, views, and privacy by the new mansion now looming over them. It's a phenomenon currently riling neighborhoods across the city of Los Angeles where I live. But I didn't truly notice it until May of 2012, when I adopted an adorable, long-legged, ten-week-old terrier mix I named Paulo. Here's a picture taken the day I adopted him.

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Paulo the day I adopted him in May 2012

As a responsible dog owner, I began taking Paulo out for daily walks, usually within a two-mile radius of my house in LA's Crestview neighborhood where I moved in late 2011. Crestview is one of those suburban pockets found amidst LA's sprawl, tucked between main thoroughfares, freeways, and commercial areas. The houses in Crestwood tend to be modest, middle-class, single-family homes with Spanish colonial revival architecture, while the houses to the west in a hilly, more affluent neighborhood called Beverlywood are larger and more suburban with a collection of styles. Fortunately, the streets of Crestview and Beverlywood have a generous amount of trees, providing Paulo and I with welcome shade to protect us from Southern California's relentless sunshine, which can become oppressive in the summer.

When I moved to Crestview in 2011, LA was still in the grips of the housing crisis/bust, with cratering prices and new construction/remodels near record lows. But the housing markets in major cities bounced back much faster than those in the suburbs, towns, exurbs, and smaller cities. By January of 2012, home prices in Crestview reached their floor and began to rebound. Now, LA is one of the nation's hottest housing markets, where a chart of LA home prices from 2012 to 2014 would even make an Apple stockholder jealous.

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Timing (and luck) is everything

Before I adopted Paulo, I barely noticed LA's surging housing market. But as I began zig-zagging and looping my way, leash in hand, through the neighborhoods around me, I could tell that conditions must be improving. The clearest evidence of this was that now every block I walked on had at least one renovation project on it, often taking the form of a complete teardown. The conventional wisdom is that it's unwise to do work on your house or construct a new one when the market is depressed, so the proliferation of gutted houses and construction fences covered in green fabric were an honest expression of homeowner/developer confidence that these bets on the improving market would pay off.

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New construction with its customary green fence

As a homeowner, it was definitely exciting knowing that the value of my house was going up. It was still only on paper, but it feels like free money. But as these house projects were completed, it was impossible to ignore the fact that these new, larger houses were radically changing the look of the blocks they were on, and potentially entire neighborhoods.

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Clash much?

One day, I was walking Paulo down a street I had walked dozens of times before. The sky was particularly clear due to some rare recent precipitation, and colors looked particularly bright through the hazeless air. A Spanish colonial house that I recognized as a Steinkamp caught my attention. Steinkamp houses (which includes my own) are modest, middle-class, single-family homes with Spanish colonial revival architecture that were designed by Elwain Steinkamp and William T. Richardson in the late 1930s and early 1940s. These dwellings have been called "the perfect houses for Southern California living", referencing California's Spanish-Mexican heritage while featuring enclosed outdoor areas, since what's life in Southern California if you aren't enjoying the weather? Steinkamps also have tons of charming details like crown molding, raised plaster details on the walls, stained glass, and a unique crest on each living room window.

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An original Steinkamp crest

I was used to seeing Steinkamps on my walks, often pausing to see if they still retained their crests or if some homeowner had had their stained glass removed in an unfortunate attempt to modernize. But there was something about the way this particular Steinkamp looked against the blue sky, with the creamy tone of the stucco, the brick red of the tile roof, and the pale green of its trim and garage door that struck me as somehow exemplifying a certain something about my LA neighborhood. So I did what any modern human does: I got out my phone and took a picture.

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Looks like Southern California living

As I continued my walk, I started thinking about what I found so pleasing about this house and what made certain newer mansions more or less jarring. So I decided to take pictures of all of the houses along my walking routes that were being renovated. After photographing several houses just on that first walk and knowing all of the streets I frequented, I knew that photographing new mansions would be a big project that could become endless unless new laws slowing the spread of mansionization were passed.


Mansionization and McMansions

The poster child for all that's bad about mansionization are the houses known as McMansions. The term is used loosely, but I tend to agree with the definition on Wikipedia, which describes "McMansion" as "a pejorative term for a type of large, new luxury house which is judged to be oversized for its parcel, or incongruous and out of place for its neighborhood." Here are three examples that fit the definition:

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Incongruous design? Check!

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Looms over and shadows neighbors? Check!

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Too big for its parcel? Check!

It's easy to imagine how miserable it would be to have monstrosities like these springing up next to your modest, decades-old home. A McMansion's balconies and second-floor windows would provide sightlines over your fences, allowing neighbors to see into your windows while providing them with unobstructed views into your backyard. Your only options would be to create, buy, or grow a barrier, keep curtains drawn 24/7, or endure the feeling of never knowing if you're being watched, which has been proven to negatively affect quality of life. Though you might as well cover your windows and give up on the backyard if the McMansion next door blocks you from the sun, sky, or attractive views.

A McMansion that clearly don't fit the neighborhood is a persistent visual reminder to anyone passing by that the occupants don't give a damn about their neighbors or the character of the neighborhood -- the architectural version of telling people to go fuck themselves. Personally, I find this type of blocky design to be cold and charmless, and I doubt it's a style that will stand the test of time. But after photographing the mansions on my routes, I realized that a mansion's aesthetics could only add insult to injury.

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Style is of little solace

After all, a house like the one above that has a style that ostensibly fits the character of the neighborhood better would block just as much sunlight and obscure the same views as something more modern. The way I see it, the appropriateness of a mansion's architectural style is more to salve the sensibilities of people passing by. For those sharing property lines with a new mansion, whether it is technically a McMansion or not is largely academic. Beauty is subjective, but size, proximity, and the physics of light are absolutes -- and no amount of Spanish tile or exposed beams will change that.

Hiding In Plain Sight

After several days of documenting new mansion projects, I realized that I had been overlooking a significant mansion category -- mansions that had been built before I started my walks in 2012. My plan had been to only photograph new construction, but it seemed that it wouldn't be fair to omit mansions just because they had been built before I had started my walks a few months prior. Besides, I had taken note of them earlier, and had actually given several of them nicknames. There was:

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"The House For Giants"

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"The Villa"

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"The Institute"

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"The Hamptons"

If it's the size and not the style of a mansion that matters, why had I thought to give these older mansions a pass? To be fair, a construction site is more dramatic than a completed house, and the newer mansions are following a trend of higher ceilings that perhaps makes older mansions appear smaller. But the more likely explanation is that, having never seen the neighborhood before those mansions, I simply accepted their presence as "the way it's always been", so I hadn't included them in my survey of mansionization, which I considered to be a fairly recent development even though it had been happening -- albeit more slowly -- for years.

That brings me to the reasons why, in theory, I can understand why some people support the new mansions. We tend to be protective of whatever stage a neighborhood happens to be in when we arrive there, deeming that to be the neighborhood's pristine or ideal state. But neighborhoods are changing all the time, whether slowly or quickly, and I'm sure what I consider "normal" might seem terrible to someone who has been living in the area for thirty years. Isn't it arrogant, unfair, or naïve to think that it's okay for a neighborhood to keep changing until I move there? In addition, shouldn't people be able to renovate their homes as long as they are following existing laws? If I wanted to make changes to or add on to my house and could do so legally, I wouldn't take kindly to anyone trying to stop me based on their own standards of what constitutes attractive architecture.

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What would you call this style? Spanish colonial robot?

The problem, however, is that it often isn't homeowners tearing down their own houses to replace them with mansions -- it's developers. And I completely understand why some homeowners are taking advantage of LA's hot housing market and are looking to sell. But selling to a developer is very different from selling to a family.

A family is looking for a home to live in for a decade or more, hopefully in peace, harmony, and friendship with their neighbors until they can eventually move to something more appropriate for their current stage of life and can sell their home for a nice profit.

A developer wants to make as much money as he can as quickly as he can, where the only people whose feelings or quality of life he cares about are himself and whoever buys his newly-built mansion. A normal, thinking, feeling person could find many reasons why she would not want to rob her neighbor of privacy or sunlight by building a looming addition onto her house, with perhaps the most powerful reason being that her neighbors would hate her for it. A developer who will never live in a house he has built doesn't have any relationships with neighbors to preserve. He actually stands to benefit from being indifferent/contemptuous to neighbors' concerns, especially if it means he is able to build a bigger, more expensive, more obtrusive structure without the impediment of a guilty conscience. And don't forget the long, noisy, messy, utterly unpleasant experience of living near a house under construction.

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Hope you like trucks, hammering, and waking up early

Since mansions are bigger and more expensive than the houses they've replaced, they inevitably drive up property values for the homes around them. That's probably the main reason why some people favor mansionization, including politicians looking for donations from increasingly wealthy developers and city governments that can collect more in property taxes. However, that means that a middle-class single-family home on a good-sized lot in a hot neighborhood might suddenly find itself with a value closer to that of a nearby mansion, effectively making that house unaffordable for the middle-class families the houses were ostensibly built for. And someone who could afford to pay a mansion price probably wouldn't be satisfied with a house under 1,800 square feet on a lot that could accommodate something larger. The result would probably be another mansion and another step towards Los Angeles becoming a city for the rich like San Francisco, where the non-wealthy can't afford to live in the city where they work.

The Way It Is

Since I started documenting mansionization along my dog-walking routes, the pace of new building seems to be increasing. Every week, I seem to stumble upon another lot ringed by a green fence, another house stripped to its frame or flattened to the dirt. It happens so often that it plays tricks with my memory. When did that house disappear? Can I remember what it looked like? Am I seeing a new project or just mistaking it for one of the dozens of projects I've walked by in the past few months? It sometimes feels like I'm a character in a science fiction story like Inception, The Matrix, or a Twilight Zone tale, where my sense of reality is challenged by unreliable memories of a cityscape that is constantly being adjusted, manipulated, and transformed, where houses that look to have been standing for decades can seemingly disappear overnight.

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Blink and you might miss it

And that's perhaps the biggest danger of mansionization. Regardless of what you think about mansionization and how it should or shouldn't be regulated, there's something about it that I've found to be consistently true.

When the first mansion goes up on a block of more modestly-sized homes, it sticks out like a garish eyesore. But if a second mansion is built on the same block, that first mansion suddenly doesn't look nearly as big and out of place as it did before.

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They're not big, they're equal

If a third mansion is built on the block, it's all over. With three mansions on a block, it becomes impossible to make the argument that that block has any kind of distinct look, character, or architecture worth preserving.

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Three of a kind

And at that point, the entire block might as well be mansionized -- and chances are it will be. Having one mansion next to you is bad enough, but if the house on the other side of you gets mansionized, blocking sun and privacy from two sides, who would want to stay? Better to take what you can get and sell, leaving the house to a developer or new buyer who would inevitably go big -- and another reminder of the now "old" neighborhood will be gone.

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If a house could be bullied

And first-time visitors and the newer, more affluent residents seeing the increasingly mansionized neighborhood for the first time will accept that neighborhood as it is. After all, for them, that's the way it's always been.