In Wellfleet, a preference for architectural modesty [February 2010 / CCT]

How big should a house be? An intriguing question. There have been two well-attended public meetings recently in Wellfleet to discuss possible zoning limitations on house size in the non-Seashore part of town (restrictions for the Seashore were voted in last year). Most of those present seem to agree on one thing: we know too big when we see it.

The infamous Blasch house, for instance, is widely thought to be too big. It’s the controversial bastion of nearly 6000 square feet under construction on a fabulous perch in the National Seashore with a 360 view.

Judge Trombly of the Massachusetts Land Court doesn’t agree with this local opinion of the Blasch house. The Seashore sued on grounds that such a dominant, self-insistent structure is all wrong for its dominant site in the Seashore and should be removed. But on Dec. 28th the judge found for the Blasches. The government “failed to that the house is a threat to cause damage to the Cape Cod National Seashore property in the vicinity…or demonstrate how the property in the vicinity is harmed by the alleged impact of the house on the scenery of the area.”

This ruling has since been appealed by the Seashore.

In one of the hearings, Ben Zehnder, the Blasch’s lawyer, argued against a size cap, pointing out that a trophy house might in fact do less environmental damage, since with the owners being elsewhere most of the time making the money needed to afford such a house, the house is occupied a small portion of the year and the septic relatively underused.

Besides, Zehnder argued, oversized houses pay more than their share of taxes. McMansions should be welcomed with open arms. But his is definitely a minority sentiment which attempts to do an end run around the basic issue, which is a values conflict.

The “damage” done by an oversized house is damage to local values, to our preference for modesty vs. ostentation, for snuggling down in a natural site rather than dominating it. Less is more in these parts, and conspicuous consumption is a term of disapproval when most people use it.

How big is too big? Members of the planning board have suggested using the average of current housing stock as a guideline in establishing a cap. They have charts showing square foot averages, depending on lot size and age, of 1000 to the low 2000s. (That number has gotten less modest over the decades here and elsewhere. The average new US house is up to 2400 square feet from under 1000 in 1950 and 1500 in 1970, as I found out by googling. )

The local feeling about house size seems to come down to a sort of democracy of square footage. No house should be allowed to lord it over the existing ones beyond a certain point. Even if a CEO is paid 100 times the average salary, his house should not be allowed to flaunt that inequality.

There is an irony in attorney Zehnder arguing the right of the Blasches to have their trophy house. The town has just helped restore an example of the work of Zehnder’s father, a designer- builder. Like other 20th century modernist gems in our town it is modest in size and unobtrusively sited in the woods. In all but words you can hear what that house is saying about the Blasches’ showboat across town.

One former selectman warned that a size cap would amount to legislating taste. That may be, but if what feels like the majority sentiment has its way, there will, sooner rather than later, be bylaws to guarantee that even if the meek don’t inherit the earth, those who do get their hands on a plot of Wellfleet sand will have to be content to express themselves architecturally with relative modesty.

While the Seashore vs. Blasch was still in court Brewster architect Malcolm Wells died. His idea of a good house interestingly contrasted with Blasch. He is best known for developing the “underground house” in which there is actually grass growing on the roof, the ultimate in inconspicuous consumption.

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