Trouble in the House of Tudor

A nasty neighborhood battle is brewing between McMansion-dwellers and self-righteous homeowners in the M Streets

In the meantime, informal debate has taken place during a series of neighborhood meetings, the first of which was held last September and attracted about 100 residents. At that meeting, Hunt says, people were mainly concerned that the district wouldn't be retroactive or limit their right to renovate. Hunt assured them the district isn't going to be that restrictive. The main goal, she says, is to make sure all the houses, particularly new ones, look the same from the front.

"We're trying to conserve an atmosphere," Hunt says. "We don't want to make it so builders don't want to build in this neighborhood. We just want them to build in such a way that their houses fit in. And if that means they want to use materials on the inside that I wouldn't choose, I don't care. That's their clients."

With that, Hunt ticks off a number of exterior design problems she has identified with the new homes, even the ones modeled after existing Tudors: They're too tall; they lack stained-glass windows and front-facing chimneys; their bricks are too big and too fire-engine red; and they have front-facing garages or, worse, circular drives.

New homeowner Jennifer Barnes now knows that the days when your neighbors welcome you with a cake are history.
Mark Graham
New homeowner Jennifer Barnes now knows that the days when your neighbors welcome you with a cake are history.
Melissa Kingston says people aren't opposed to the McMansion. "It's more that they feel they don't fit in with the neighborhood."
Mark Graham
Melissa Kingston says people aren't opposed to the McMansion. "It's more that they feel they don't fit in with the neighborhood."

"Typically the style is modern suburban," Hunt explains. "They might try to have half-timbering, but they're not Tudor. They just simply don't have the steep gables of a Tudor. And the materials are another huge thing. We use a size of brick called modular or standard. You often see king-sized bricks on the newer homes. They're larger, and they just have a different aesthetic. They're more suburban."

These are just a few examples of the smaller details the proposed ordinance would address. More significant rules require future homes to be built in the High Tudor style (or in a few rare cases, Craftsman style), while renovations must not be visible from the front. No metal roofs would be permitted, and porch enclosures must be done with see-through glass. In addition, any existing High Tudor may not be demolished unless its owner can prove that a repair job would cost a minimum 120 percent of the structure's appraised value. Other homes may be razed at will.

As the effort advances, Hunt stresses that her supporters are going out of their way to make the new-home people feel welcome. The practice, she says, was established at the first neighborhood meeting after someone made an unfortunate "crack" about the McMansions. Hunt can't recall the exact comment but says the name-calling ended there.

"Someone said, 'Stop. We're neighbors first and foremost. That's more important than anything else we're doing,'" Hunt recalls, adding that, "this isn't something that has been divisive, and I think we've intentionally tried to keep it that way."

Colin Weeks has received fliers about Hunt's proposed district but hasn't attended any of the meetings. "I think I'm what they're trying to avoid," Weeks says. "If they don't like my home, I'm sorry."

Less than a year ago, Weeks considered himself lucky when he bought his house at 5301 Merrimac Avenue, a block over from Hunt's place. The house, custom built in 1999, is precisely the type of "modern suburban" construction that sparked Hunt's rebellion. With 3,000 square feet of living area, standard for the new homes, the red-brick house is portly compared to its neighbors. Its façade does not include a front porch, and its multiple gables are less dramatic than those of its neighbors. To Weeks, however, the house is simply a modern version of the old.

"My home is a Tudor-style home. It is not a Plano McMansion, as I've heard so many people refer to it as," Weeks says. "I think it fits the neighborhood."

Weeks has not taken a position on the proposed district, though he generally supports the idea of keeping its overall look. What irks him is the term McMansion. To him, it's a slur that implies cheapness. "There's nothing cheap about the way this house was built, I can assure you," says Weeks, whose house is currently appraised at nearly half a million dollars.

However objectionable the exterior of Weeks' house might be to his neighbors, the interior has everything they envy. For starters, it offers more storage space than the most monstrous renovation. The master bath, fitted with his and hers sinks plus a whirlpool, is equipped with a walk-in closest that approximates the size of an original Tudor's master bedroom. The kitchen offers a built-in wine rack, stainless steel appliances and custom-built cabinets so numerous that Weeks has converted his food pantry into a liquor reserve.

The rest of the house is finished with hardwood floors and crown molding. Every room is wired for sound, while its entertainment center includes a built-in wood cabinet designed for modern electronics. From where he stands, Weeks can only wonder how the old Tudor owners live in this day and age.

"How do you get a 50-inch television set in those doors?" says Weeks, shaking his head sadly. Weeks says his modern home is in many ways superior to those around him, but he's not so "emotionally attached" to it that he would try to impose his taste on his neighbors. "This is America," he says. "I'm not gonna tell someone they cannot build in the neighborhood."

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