Big, Ugly Houses: Chapter I, Walnut Creek’s own Xanadu

Okay, go ahead and call me mean and a scold for singling out the above-pictured home, which sits oh-so conspiciousy on top of a ridge above an elementary school playing field in unincorporated Walnut Creek; Or for calling it “ugly.” But, hey, that’s my opinion, and whoever built, bought, and/or currently resides in this house was obviously eager to be the center of their neighbors’ gaze. Given the home’s visually prominent position–you cannot miss it if you drive around certain parts of town–the builder and/or homeowner very much wanted it to be seen, and to even make a community-wide statement that says, “Look at my house!”

Also, if there is anyone out there who disagrees with me essentially calling this house an eyesore–who wants to argue that this home is appropriately sized, aesthetically pleasing, artfully designed, and Architectural Digest-ready–please do so.

I know the neighborhood association wasn’t happy about it being built, but there wasn’t a lot they could do. Because the home was to be built in an unincorporated part of Walnut Creek, the association had to deal with the county, not the city, and the county seems more willing than the local city government to rubber-stamp horrific looking residential developments. (We’re all familiar with those homes above the Stone Valley Road exit of Interstate 680 in Alamo; they’re planned to be subjects for future posts.)

My interest is shall we say, more academic, and I’m going to start photographing and searching for other local “big, ugly” houses to display and to contemplate. (If you have any photos you’d like to share, please do. Don’t give me names and addresses, just towns.) Anyway, I am really fascinated by the motives and tastes of the developers, architects, land owners, real estate agents, and home buyers who push these Super McMansions into our neighborhoods. What’s going on here?

I imagine all the excess cash (or, in these days, the illusion of excess cash) involved in the construction and sales of these homes, as well as the inflated egos, bad taste, hubris, and general lack of consideration for the sensibilities of neighbors, communities, and, in some cases, the local environment. Of course, there is something particularly American about all this–in holding homes like these to be some kind of pinnacle of the American dream. At the same time, it just doesn’t register to all involved in building these “dream homes” that these ostentatious displays of real estate just don’t fit in, at least visually, into the surrounding landscape.

And why does the proliferation of Super McMansions seem to be a particularly suburban phenomenon? Well, most probably because, unlike in a city, there is more land on which to spread out. And settling in the suburbs: that’s very much in the usual narrative of the American dream, including for builders and owners of Super McMansions.

I’ve dubbed this house “Xanadu.” That name applies, first, to the the massive, gilded fortress built by Charles Foster Kane, the melagomanical protagonist of Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane (and a character based on fabled newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst). I have no idea who built or owns this above-pictured Xanadu, so I don’t know what their motives were in erecting the house in this location and in this very distinctive “style.” But like this Xanadu, Kane built his atop a hill, in a spot that afforded him 360-degree views. And in Kane’s case, he built his fortress to show off his power and to make people admire and love him. He also used his fortress as a way to escape the sorrows of his rich but lonely, disappointed life.

Xanadu also refers to Shangdu, the fabled summer palace built by the 13th Mongol emperor Kublai Khan west of Beijing. More to the point, Xanadu refers to Kublai Khan’s opulent, dreamy palace as envisioned by the great English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem, “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.”

The poem begins:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree

(These lines, by the way, are recited in Citizen Kane.) In his poem, which Coleridge claimed was inspired by an opium-induced dream, the poet goes on to describe Kubla Khan as desperately power hungry, and crazed for his subjects,and the rest of the known world, to believe that he was glorified by the divine power of God. Coleridge ends his poem with this description of the maniacal master of Xanadu:

Beware! Beware!,
his flashing eyes! his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
and close your eyes with holy dread!
for he on honey-dew hath fed,
and drunk the milk of Paradise

Not to get too literary on you, but after re-visiting Coleridge’s poem, I have to wonder how many Kublai Khans we have out here in Walnut Creek and the surrounding suburbs, how many have felt driven to build their own Xanadus, not just to impress their neighbors, but to prove something to themselves: that somehow, because they can manage to afford to build and/or to own an overwhelmingly big, opulent, gaudy house, that they have seized for themselves universal respect, power, admiration, awe, and, most illusively, love.

Of course, with the recession, many local Kublai Khans might have lost a fair share of their millions. So, maybe construction plans for their new Super McMansions might be put on hold. That would be one small silver lining in this economic crisis: a slowdown in the local Super McMansion construction industry. Then again, that means that many ordinary construction workers won’t have jobs–men and women who have rental or mortgage payments on their own much more modest homes to pay and families to clothe and feed.

20 thoughts on “Big, Ugly Houses: Chapter I, Walnut Creek’s own Xanadu

  1. I know this house very well, and I know the school. My son played soccer there this past fall. Amazing. It’s not the only “big, ugly” one on top of that hill. There’s another one that looks like a good rain storm would send it crashing into the soccer field. I agree with the previous poster. If you are going to build a house on top of a hill, put some windows in it so you can see the views your’re paying so much for.


  2. It’s not very nice to single this house and this family out. Shame on you. Sure, it’s not the most attractive house, but it’s their property, their land. People should have rights to do what they want.


  3. Right on Anonymous #3! Last time I checked, we still live in America where we are somewhat free to do what we wish with our land as long as we adhere to the local government ordinances. What may seem ugly to some is not always ugly to everyone else. I for one do not care for Eichler style homes but by the same token I do not have the right to deny anyone from either building or living in one. I would never insult anyone by pointing out the fact that I don’t like the style, size, color, location, etc. of their home. How petty is that!!!! There are much more important things in life to be concerned about……like having the good grace to respect another person’s individual taste in home design.


  4. Very wrong Anonymous 4. It’s ugly–plain and simple. A Frankenstein’s monster of a design, a blight to the neighborhood, which I happen to live in. It sickens me every time I drive by. Sure, people have individual property rights, but they are still part of a community and should at least respect how their so-called individual “taste” (can you even call this monstrosity tasteful? Please!) fits in with the surrounding environment. This house totally overwhelms the lovely natural scenery of grasses and oaks. I think any well-trained architect worth his credentials would label this house an utter disaster. As for Eichler homes? I, too, am not a great fan, but, at least, they don’t try to dominate their landscape and surrounding neighborhoods.


  5. “Shame on you. Sure, it’s not the most attractive house, but it’s their property, their land. People should have rights to do what they want.”So if I wanted to build the Empire State building on my property in WC I should have the right to? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


  6. The Empire State building would not be built on any property in WC as it would not comply with the city ordinances that are in place to protect all of us against gross intrusion by others. However, there is always the variance route which can be applied for and the lengthly process that ensues with its initiation. We can only hope that the appointed members of the planning and design review commissions will not bend to pressure from overbearing developers. Of course then there is always the city council who is the final decision maker. Anon #4, there is a bright blue house in my neighborhood which I find most unpleasant to look at. There is not a lot I can do about it except try to take pride in the manner in which I maintain my own home and hope that the blue paint fades quickly!—-Anon #4—-


  7. I think Soccer Mom’s “academic” interest is intriguing. Who are the people who build these homes, and what are they thinking? Why are they such self-centered home design jerks? Okay, people with two much money, too little taste and huge egos have been around since the beginning of civilization, I guess. You know, maybe in a century or two, if this house doesn’t slide down the hill, it might be considered a visionary masterpiece. Kind of like all those monuments of ego that kings and moguls of previous eras built to themselves.


  8. “The Empire State building would not be built on any property in WC as it would not comply with the city ordinances that are in place to protect all of us against gross intrusion by others.”Well, if “it’s their property, their land. People should have rights to do what they want.”, then that shouldn’t matter, right? Hello?


  9. This isn’t the one you can see from 680 as you’re driving through Alamo, right? Do you know the one I mean? It’s on the East side of the freeway at the Stone Valley Road exit. It has the tiniest windows… for a long time I wasn’t sure it was actually a house, but a friend of a friend knows the people living there.


  10. Dear Readers,First, no, this isn’t the house in Alamo above the Stone Valley exit off I-680. It is in Walnut Creek, and it is visible from the freeway and from various parts of town. It’s even visible from the window near my desk at work, and I work about two miles away. I was in the mood for a drive this morning, and headed over to Lafayette and up Happy Valley and Upper Happy Valley roads, the main thoroughfares through what are probably among the toniest neighborhoods in the East Bay suburbs. Well, tony Lafayette is not immune to big ugly houses. The only difference is that the residents in these neighborhoods hide their sins behind big high walls or hedges. It’s probably peer pressure. They’d get kicked out of the Orinda Country Club or ostracized from the PTA fundraising commitee at their kids’ schools if their forced their big, ugly taste on their neighbors.I did see some big cool houses, ones that inspired major, blazing green house envy deep in my wicked little heart. Oh, why did I marry out of love, and not out of a desire to have a big, cool house on Happy Valley Road? And with a tennis court–even though I don’t play tennis. Woe is me! Anyway, a couple of the cool ones were very modern and Dwell magazine-esque. I would have photographed them, but they were behind hedges and gates. I only intend to photograph homes that are highly visible from the street. These homes, by the way, were designed in a way that fit in nicely with the neighboring homes, didn’t try to dominate the landscape, and even played off the look of the oak-studded hills that serve as their backdrop. So, it is possible to have a big, elegant house, and it is possible to build it in a way that’s tasteful and a credit to your neighborhood, instead of a detriment. Property rights? Sure, people can build what they want on their property as long as it conforms to local government ordinances. But what about some common consideration? If I had enough money to build a big, swanky house, I’d make sure to spend the money on experts to design the house in a way that was environmentally responsible and aesthetically pleasing, both to me and to the surrounding landscape.


  11. Yeah, is there some way to get this homeowner to pay everyone who has to look at it, from the neighborhood and from the freeway, for pain and suffering? Thanks for writing about something a lot of us have all been thinking for a long time–but we felt too “mean” to speak up!


  12. Common syndrome… the “look at me” syndrome. The same thing that inspires paunchy guys with Friar Tuck hairdos to go buy a Harley, rip off the stock pipes and put on those godawful “whistlers.” Same syndrome that inspires crushingly stupid boys in rearward ball caps to install $4,000 worth of subwoofers in a $800 car and subject the neighborhood to the again godawful “boom, boom, boomboom” for the several months it takes their cars to shake apart. What are they saying? Look at me, I can make noise/build a big house you all have to look at and do nothing about. Nice, eh?


  13. I think just about all the new construction architecture in the area is ass, but much of the old rancher style homes are also super tacky.I think the bay area in general suffers from bad taste.


  14. Well, if it’s the owners of the uber-cool Zebra Tatoo, and they’re living in this epitome of suburban excess, what does this say about their hipster street cred?


  15. There are a lot of ugly houses in the USA, but this may just be the ugliest monstrosity yet. As for the person who gave the tired, lame comment that, “This is America, we can do whatever we want with our land…” That is the attitude that makes our neighborhoods so damn ugly! No one takes community into account. People build huge houses on lots that are way too small and tower over their neighbors' smaller, older houses. It looks stupid. As does this house. And everyone has to look at it. No wonder people in other countries think that Americans have bad taste.


  16. The Berkeley hills will have their own big-arse ugly home, if the Kapors get their way – they plan to put a 10,000 sq foot home in the hills, with a ten car garage. The homes in the area will be dwarfed by this monolithic office building. It's sad how money and bad taste can ruin the charm of a neighborhood.

    btw, since when does a family of two need a 10,000 square foot house, and how does it qualify as a LEEDS home?



  17. A great house is a large and stately residence; the term encompasses different styles of dwelling in different countries. The name refers to the makeup of the household rather than to any particular architectural style. It particularly refers to large households of times past in Anglophone countries (especially those of the turn of the 20th century, i.e., the late Victorian or Edwardian era in the United Kingdom and the Gilded Age in the United States), such as the English country house, the “stately homes of England” and the homes of various “millionaires' row” (or “millionaires' mile”) in some U.S. cities such as Newport, Rhode Island, with luxurious appointments and great retinues of indoor and outdoor staff. By some reports, the summer homes of the wealthy at Newport averaged four servants per family member. There was often an elaborate hierarchy among staff, domestic workers in particular. In Ireland, the term big house is usual for the houses of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.


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