Illustrated mega mansion
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos from Getty
Entertainment

A Brief and Garish History of Megamansions

From Graceland to “Versailles,” extremely large homes have long provoked feelings of aspiration, envy, and disgust.
February 3, 2021, 12:00pm
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A series that explores the endless appeal of the physical footprint of celebrity.

After churning out television touchstones like Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Dynasty, producer Aaron Spelling decided he and his family deserved to upgrade from their cozy 10,000 square foot home to something a little roomier. So in 1988, he razed Bing Crosby’s old estate and built a colossal monument to abject excess.

At 56,500 square feet, Spelling’s megamansion, quaintly dubbed “The Manor,” is 1,500 square feet larger than the White House. Modeled after the chateaus of France, The Manor doesn’t float across scenic countryside but sits instead on six acres smack in the middle of Los Angeles. With 123 rooms, including a flower cutting room, multiple gift-wrapping rooms, a barbershop, and a room solely to house his wife Candy’s doll collection, Spelling made sure his mansion had space for whatever whims he could conjure. A room specifically for French wine and cheese was furnished with café tables and chairs, and the one-lane bowling alley came complete with a closet just for bowling shoes. Naturally, there was an entire wing to accommodate the 30-plus staff members needed to keep the estate running.

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Today, the average single-family home size in America is estimated at between 1,600 and 1,650 square feet, meaning you could fit at least 33 average-sized homes inside The Manor. Indeed, Spelling’s daughter Tori said she barely ventured outside of a normal-sized radius when she lived there as a teen.

“It was a family of four. My mom, my dad, my brother, and myself,” Tori told the Jeff Lewis Live radio show in January. “We spent time in the kitchen, the office, my parents’ bedroom, and each of our bedrooms. That’s it.”

After Aaron’s death in 2006, The Manor was bought by racing heiress Petra Ecclestone for $85 million in 2011. Following renovations that included turning the basement into a private nightclub and reimagining Candy’s doll room as a pedicure salon, it sold for $120 million to an anonymous buyer in 2019—the most expensive home sale ever for the largest home in L.A. County.

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While American single-family home prices have continued to rise in the midst of the pandemic, and we mere mortals hit “fave” on six-digit Zillow listings we’ll never afford, the rich are getting richer—and that includes celebrities who shell out millions on megamansions, an unofficial term traditionally used for any home over 10,000 square feet, and sometimes limited to those over 20,000. But as luxury real-estate agent and Selling Sunset star Jason Oppenheim told VICE, “Anyone who can afford a megamansion isn’t using the term ‘megamansion.’ It’s an ‘estate.’”

Aaron Spelling's 6-acre Los Angeles house

Aaron Spelling's "The Manor", photographed from a helicopter on May 28, 1992. Photo via Paul Harris/Getty

Sprawling celebrity homes exist across North America—like Drake’s 50,000 square foot Toronto mansion that’s large enough to house a regulation NBA basketball court (and does); John Travolta’s Ocala, Florida, property that makes up for its modest 6,500 square footage with two private airplane runways that lead straight to his front door; or Taylor Swift’s 11,000 square foot beachfront Rhode Island estate, which she immortalized in song—but the epicenter of celebrity real estate has always been Los Angeles. And homes there are only getting larger and more extravagant.

“Wealth among the 0.1 percent has done extremely well over the last 10 years, and celebrity wealth has grown significantly,” said L.A.-based Oppenheim, whose past clients include Orlando Bloom, Alex Rodriguez, and Dakota Johnson. “You weren’t really seeing celebrities buy ultra-luxury estates 10 or 15 years ago. Maybe the one-off soccer player or Tom Cruise-type, but what you’re seeing now are huge contracts in sports and media that didn’t exist 15 years ago. So athletes and celebrities are [more frequently] able to afford $20-30 million-dollar-plus homes.”

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Those homes are like stadiums in themselves. Oppenheim cited Trevor Noah’s recent acquisition of an 11,000 square foot, $27.5 million Bel-Air mansion that features an elevator, library, movie theater, steam room, and 11 bathrooms. (Forbes estimated The Daily Show host and comedian's annual income at $28 million in 2019.)

But over the last decade, lawmakers have been combatting the escalating big-box mansion trend that they say has negatively impacted the amount of affordable housing available to Angelenos. Previous ordinances allowed homes to occupy up to 70 percent of an individual lot, but over the last 10 years, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance has gradually decreased the maximum home size allowed down to 45 percent of a lot’s total area. “There’s too many opportunities for developers to build these giant, blocky McMansions,” Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who supported the tightening restrictions, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a profit motive to destroy neighborhoods.” (While usually not as large as megamansions, mass-produced McMansions stand out by being architecturally hideous and cheaply made.)

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Sometimes, big spenders bite off more than they can chew. Take Mohamed Hadid, real-estate tycoon and father of models Gigi and Bella, who found himself embroiled in property hell after pleading no-contest to 2017 criminal charges surrounding building violations on his unfinished 30,000 square foot “La Strada” mansion in Beverly Hills. His alleged offenses included, among other things, the illegal construction of a personal IMAX theater, which prompted Koretz to call for the demolition of the $50 million monstrosity. Hadid claims he lacks the money required to tear it down, though as Los Angeles magazine noted in their December 2020 interview with Hadid, “in a chandeliered dining room adorned with pricey artwork in a gated house just off Coldwater Canyon, Hadid does not appear to be someone who is lacking.”

The coronavirus pandemic has marked a shift both in celebrity real-estate trends and in our exasperation with celebrities themselves. Last August, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle purchased a $14.7 million, 19,000 square foot Montecito compound that features a full-size tennis court, rose gardens, and 16 bathrooms, about 90 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Their neighbors include Oprah Winfrey, who has gradually racked up a parcel of properties in the Santa Barbara County enclave, most recently purchasing a $6.85 million home from Jeff Bridges to join her existing 23,000 square foot, $50 million “Promised Land” estate and a nearby $29 million horse farm. That expansive property meant Winfrey’s longtime partner Stedman Graham could quarantine for two weeks at a distance in a well-appointed guest house.

“American culture, to begin with, is unusually spacious, in the sense that people think of space as part of American culture,” Sonia A. Hirt, a professor of landscape architecture and planning, told The Atlantic in 2019. “This is partially part of the American promise—that you can have more room.”

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But in the age of COVID-19, witnessing celebrities cloister inside their obscenely large houses and pander with “Imagine” sing-alongs can provide new reasons to scoff at their out-of-touch lifestyles. “Seeing celebrity homes [in 2020] took on new meaning in a potentially negative way,” said Andrea McDonnell, co-author of Celebrity: A History of Fame. “The pleasure of voyeurism was overshadowed by those feelings of resentment by regular people who are going through a really difficult time and are also confined to the home a lot more.”

There’s a distinct schadenfreude when things fall apart within celebrities’ mansions, even to an innocuous degree. When a recent screenshot from a Kylie Jenner Instagram video appeared to show an enormous marble bathroom inside her 15,000 square foot Holmby Hills mansion, it quickly received more than 1.5 million likes on Twitter when someone shared it with the caption, “Kylie Jenner lives in a $35m mansion, and this is the water pressure…” in jest of the pitiful stream dribbling from the showerhead. Jenner later clarified the video was actually of a shower at her office and shared a new video of an even more spacious shower with stronger water pressure inside her $36.5 million home.

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Still, the increased frustration with celebrities’ flaunting their living spaces during the pandemic isn’t “just economic,” McDonnell said, “because if you look back to the 2008 recession, the Real Housewives [cast members] were really hitting their stride. We wanted that envy and that fun voyeurism. But something about the pandemic makes people feel that home is a space that’s loaded with a lot more meaning.”

Hollywood couple Douglas Fairbanks and wife Mary Pickford canoe along the swimming pool at their Pickfair estate.

Hollywood couple Douglas Fairbanks and wife Mary Pickford canoe along the swimming pool at their Pickfair estate. Photo via Getty

In the 1920s, silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks renovated a Beverly Hills hunting lodge into a 13,421 square foot party mansion set on 18 acres. Once settled in the home, dubbed “PickFair,” they hosted dinners and parties for famous faces including Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their neighbor, Charlie Chaplin. So big was PickFair that “you needed a road map to find the bathroom,” said Ronnie Rogers, the adopted son of Pickford and her second husband, Buddy Rogers, according to PBS

The public’s fascination with the homes of Hollywood’s rich and famous ramped up in the dawn of mass media, when early entertainment magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen staged at-home shoots with 1940s and 50s celebrities to splash across their pages. Fans, regardless of social status or geographic location, could virtually set foot inside Clark Gable and Carole Lombard’s 20-acre Encino ranch or Jayne Mansfield’s 10,000 square foot Pink Palace, which included a heart-shaped swimming pool and an indoor champagne fountain.

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“Those magazines did the exact kind of work that Instagram does today,” McDonnell said. “We’re talking about their citrus trees and their little dog, and it allows us to feel like we’re getting to know these people. A lot of it is really banal, but we’re fascinated because they’re famous.”

As entertainment media proliferated and TVs began to appear in every living room, our window into learning about celebrities’ larger-than-life real-estate acquisitions widened. And while wealthy people in general have always tended to own grandiose homes and flaunt their status-symbol properties, for celebrities, there’s an added level of brand-building in investing in a megamansion.

“If the home is big enough, extravagant enough, designed for attention, then it almost becomes part of the story that we tell about the celebrity,” McDonnell said. “In some ways, they become inextricable.”

Take Elvis Presley’s 17,500 square foot Graceland. Michael Jackson's 12,600 square foot Neverland. Trump’s 62,500 square foot Mar-a-Lago. Or the still unfinished 90,000 square foot “Versailles” mansion near Orlando that earned Jackie Siegel, the wife of timeshare CEO David Siegel, a documentary film and reported upcoming TV series about her over-the-top journey with the megamansion. It’s set to be the biggest house in America and includes a roller skating rink and 10 kitchens.

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“It’s the same size as a super Walmart,” Jackie told RealiTea with Derek Z last November. “Everyone knows what a Walmart is, so just imagine that’s my house.”

Since the majority of luxury home buyers are not celebrities—instead tech or business moguls or simply “old money”—the allure of owning a notable home that once belonged to a celebrity can be a major selling point for realtors. Beyond just the ability to name drop that your mansion was once owned by a celebrity, there are often other tangible benefits. Namely: Closets and protection.

“Celebrities tend to convert bedrooms into makeup and dressing rooms,” Oppenheim said. “That can be a positive because you can never have too much room for someone to get ready and have their clothes looking nice. And then, they’ll often create a security room, which is generally a positive, too. Security has become a big deal.”

As Instagram Lives and Zoom interviews allowed a more unfiltered look inside celebrities’ daily activities at home, the New York Times speculated that 2020 would bring about “the swift dismantling of celebrity culture.” But it’s unlikely they’ll stop buying insanely large homes any time soon. Luxury home sales surged nationwide in 2020, and Oppenheim noted that L.A. buyers have been eager to shed properties in cluttered, central neighborhoods like West Hollywood and seek more space and privacy further afield.

“You’re seeing celebrities move toward Malibu and Montecito or the Valley more than any time before,” Oppenheim said. “There was a huge push the last five to 10 years towards big, shiny boxes without land. And I don’t think those are good investments, so I could not be happier about the fact that I see the next trend being toward solid, long-term investments, which are privacy and land.”

After all, nothing pairs better with a megamansion than a mega lot. And decent water pressure.

Follow Ashley Spencer on Twitter.