What Is a Mansion? That Big House You’re Looking at Might Not Be the Real Deal

At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.

Holy smokes, Batman! Have you ever dreamed of living in a mansion like Wayne Manor, with sprawling wings, elevators, and an enormous underground car garage? First things first — what exactly is a mansion? The term “mansion” is actually harder to pin down than you might think, with a slightly subjective and amorphous definition.

So if a house is huge, does that automatically qualify it as a mansion? Not necessarily. For a house to garner the title of mansion, there are certain required features like a flock of flamingos and fire dancers. Wait, that’s not quite right. So what makes a mansion a mansion?

Together, let’s take a look at the features and unique characteristics that mansions share and how the popularity of mansions has shifted over time. Why not dip our toes into the world of McMansions while we are at it!

Ready to dive into the details and discover what is a mansion? It’s time for the magic to unfold.

The White House in Washington, D.C. is a private residence but still qualifies as a mansion.
Source: (David Everett Strickler / Unsplash)

What is a mansion?

As William Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s in a name?” The name itself, “mansion,” has a myriad of connotations and is evocative, perhaps, of times past or of the mega-mansions now being erected in cities like Los Angeles and Singapore. Precisely, what is a mansion?

We thought it best to call in the experts. Earl Wilson, a principal at San Francisco’s highly regarded BAR Architects says it’s a word that’s not in the lexicon right now. “I don’t use it and my clients don’t use it. Yet, everyone has an association with that word. I don’t think of it as an architectural term. We use words like “villa” or “palazzo” as those conjure real architecture images, but mansions are more of a lifestyle thing from a past period.”

Niall Washburn, the founder and principal at Mind’s Eye Architecture + Planning in Katonah, New York, further clarifies that now and in times past, the word mansion wasn’t much used by their owners. “Mansion is an odd word, everyone knows what it means, but the people who live in the houses themselves don’t often use the term. The enormous houses in Newport, Rhode Island, were all referred to as ‘cottages’ even though they are among the grandest and most extravagant group of large houses ever built in one place in the U.S.”

Thus, while the term mansion may or may not be used to describe a home, it still may unmistakably be a mansion. The term mansion has changed over time, yet we all still can picture what a mansion is when we hear the word. Let’s get to work further defining what a mansion is.

Does size matter? How big is a mansion

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a mansion as “a large imposing residence,” whereas the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a very large, expensive house.” The word “large” is the most common denominator when searching for a definition of mansion. How big is a mansion, really?

As a general guideline, the approximate size of a mansion is 5,000 square feet. That being said, a mansion in NYC will be a lot smaller than a mansion in Beverly Hills. In reality, the size of a mansion is subjective, and hinges upon the region where the home is located.

In Los Angeles, the standard for a mansion would be considered more around 20,000 square feet. As of January 2021, the most expensive house in the urban world was unveiled, developed by Nile Niami. It’s located in California’s Bel Air, it clocks in at a whopping 105,000 square feet, and is named “The One.” The master bedroom suite is 5,500 square feet, which, as you remember, is slightly more than the general rule of thumb for a mansion in and of itself!

For reference, how big is the White House? It’s 55,000 square feet. While that six-floor icon of American democracy and government may seem enormous, it’s not even listed among the top 20 biggest mansions in the U.S. As the White House is a private single-family residence, it indeed qualifies as a mansion.

Essentially, a mansion can range from 5,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet or more! It’s all dependent on location.

An interior of a mansion displaying high quality architecture and design.
Source: (Phillip Glickman / Unsplash)

What is a mansion? The basics

Mansions are works of art in their own right. A true mansion is a one-of-a-kind, custom home designed by an architect. The development, design, and aesthetics are all key players in the making of a mansion.

Washburn defines a mansion as, “a very large single-family residence that strives to be tasteful. A mansion is a bespoke, custom house personalized for the owners. He notes that, in practice, “mansions are always showpieces but they should avoid being ostentatious.”

The true essence of a mansion is in its very marrow — the materials. The materials are a mansion’s structure and substance. In fact, materials influence more than just the appearance of your home, but also its quality, sustainability, and durability.

Materials used for a mansion

In terms of materials, stone, brick, wood, stucco, vinyl siding, and HardiPlank are all common building materials for home construction, whereas mansions are made out of the finest woods, stonework, and fabrics. The most luxurious homes have marble flooring, granite countertops, slate swimming pool areas, and garden paths. Consider the Vanderbilt Marble House, a 140,000-square-foot mansion in Rhode Island that was constructed with $7 million worth of white marble — 500,000 cubic feet of it to be precise!

As natural stones aren’t uniform, they provide phenomenal natural textures for luxury residential construction. The most popular types of natural stone for luxury homes include marble, granite, slate, flagstone, travertine, quartzite, and limestone. Think of the crystalline and colorful possibilities for decorative construction.

Paired with ash, oak, teak and walnut framework, and cladding, and interiors crafted from exotic hardwoods, such as ebony at $120 per foot and lignum vitae at $90 per foot.

You can expect modern mansions to feature high-end appliances, smart home features, and elaborate security systems. Even if a mansion was not recently constructed, it is quite likely that it has been renovated with these upscale features added.

Wilson explains that over his 30-year career in architecture, he has worked on many historic mansion remodels to make older homes serve a modern lifestyle. “I think one of the really interesting aspects of doing this can be how you preserve what I would call the character-defining features and architectural elements of the past, and also bring in the new, in a way that creates a rich and interesting dialogue between the modern and the historic,” he says.

Specifically in terms of upgrades and renovations, Wilson points out that “as well as upgrading to a mansion with a whole host of modern conveniences, including modern heating, cooling, plumbing, and lighting, in general there is an appeal in bringing more natural light into homes, and having a better indoor-outdoor flow. I don’t think people in the past lived outdoors in the way we do now. There is now interest in getting the right flow to a terrace, a deck, or maybe a roof terrace.”

Leisure and entertainment

What is the purpose of having a mansion if you don’t have spaces dedicated to enjoy it? Basking in the glory of your mansion is half the fun! If half isn’t an appropriate estimate, you’ll have to let us know.

In terms of leisure spaces, in times past this translated to greenhouses, music rooms, conservatories, or libraries, which are all the utmost symbols of refinery and tradition. Today, the leisure spaces of mansions vary greatly in grandeur and in poshness, including fitness rooms, tennis or basketball courts, home theaters, and high-tech media rooms. Consider Bel Air’s “The One,” which is home to a 400-foot jogging track, a four-lane bowling alley, a spa, a movie theater, a 10,000-square-foot sky deck with a putting green, a juice bar, a cigar lounge, and a custom tequila bar.

Mansions are also important venues for social and political gatherings. Having ample entertaining space is non-negotiable. Mansions will often have enormous ballrooms or even a wing dedicated for galas and gatherings. Other popular entertaining spaces include billiards rooms, wet bars, and pools.

One of the most impressive examples of a historic mansion’s leisure spaces is Georgian Court. In 1899, George Gould, heir of a railroad fortune, commissioned a grand house to be built as his private summer residence and playground in Lakewood, New Jersey. Architect Bruce Price designed it.

As Washburn expounds, “Price designed an indoor polo field because it sometimes rained too much to play polo outside when the family’s guests came for the short summer season. Price also included indoor facilities for swimming and bowling, as well as for racquets and court tennis — both alternate versions of tennis imported from Europe. Only a few dozen courts were ever built for racquets or court tennis in the U.S. Entertaining spaces in mansions are, often quite literally, derived from the play spaces of European royalty.”

Upscale grounds

There’s more to a mansion than just the structure itself. The land that the mansion sits on is also a key factor when defining what is a mansion. Mansions dwell on upscale grounds that can feature gardens, majestic views, sweeping grassy knolls or fields, and hiking trails. Having multiple guest houses dotting the property isn’t unheard of, either. Neither is having a moat around your mansion or your very own waterfall.

Part of what makes a mansion a mansion is the space around it. Even if there aren’t hundreds of acres of land involved, as Washburn reveals, “up and down the Hudson you can find these grand homes, often set in a park-like setting. During the Beaux Arts period, as the mansions became larger they were typically set in faux-picturesque landscapes modeled after Italian villas or English estates.”

Mansions are not called mansions just because of their size. The entire atmosphere, the land itself, must be pristine, beautiful, intentional.

The Biltmore mansion is in North Carolina.
Source (re-sized): (timeless_toys / Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

The mansion throughout history

The creation of mansions, chateaus, palaces, manors, and castles stretch back for years and years. Since the pre-Industrial Revolution, enormous homes have been emblems of aristocracy and wealth for generations. Understanding the history of mansions sheds further light on answering the provocative question: What is a mansion?

Pre-Industrial Revolution

According to the 1790 U.S. Census, more than 90% of all U.S. laborers worked in farming. The wealth in the pre-Industrial Revolution was held in land, and there were very few individuals who were at a station where they could own a large home. The select few owned vast estates where they collected rent, produced foods and goods for sale, and continued to accrue wealth.

Consider the elegant Essex Estate in Massachusetts, built in 1684, and coming in at 5,674 square feet on a lot of 9.29 acres, with stately English gardens and a path to a nearby Lake Chebacco. The property used to be a 300-acre farm, and today is an idyllic home that is up for sale as of March 2021 for $1,490,000.

Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age

Most historical accounts place the start of the American Industrial Revolution at roughly 1820, as factory labor and entrepreneurial innovation were the driving forces of industrialization. It is not surprising that the Industrial Revolution ushered in the Gilded Age. The Industrial Revolution was a period of rapid economic expansion attributed to coal mining, railroads, and factories, whereas the Gilded Age, a period from 1870 to the early 1900s, was a time of urbanization, technological creativity, and the invention of electricity!

By 1890, the United States was home to 4,000 millionaires, who held 20% of the country’s wealth. As History.com states, “the wealthy considered themselves America’s royalty and settled for nothing less than estates worthy of that distinction.” In fact, some of America’s most famous mansions were constructed in the Gilded Age.

The Biltmore estate was built in Asheville, North Carolina, for George Vanderbilt. It’s a 250-room chateau completed in 1895 that is  jaw-droppingly beautiful, spanning 175,000 square feet. Along with the castle-esque mansion, there are expansive grounds with a dairy, horse barn, and elegant gardens.

The Breakers, located in Newport, Rhode Island, is another Vanderbilt mansion, commissioned for Corneilus Vanderbilt, a railroad tycoon. The mansion was built in the Italian-Renaissance style and was completed in 1895. It is 43,000 square feet and has 70 rooms. In addition, The Breakers has a stable and a carriage house, along with 13 acres of picturesque landscape. The Rosecliff is another of Newport’s stunning Gilded Age mansions, spanning 65,000 square feet. Silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs commissioned the home and architect Stanford White modeled it after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

Situated in Palm Beach, Florida, Whitehall is a stunning neo-classical 100,000-square-foot mansion with 75 rooms and an impressive exterior marked by massive marble columns. It was built for Henry Flagler, an oil mogul, and his wife Mary Lily. It was completed in 1902.

World War I era

The WWI era was marked by labor reforms that brought about much needed wage and worker protections. The other side of the coin is that this now made it more difficult for landowners to pay the squadrons of employees needed to upkeep their enormous mansions. Thus, the top-tier of America’s aristocracy started to decline in wealth.

That being said, there were still a few incredible mansions constructed during this era, including the iconic Hearst Castle. Located in San Simeon, California, and designed by the prolific architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle is a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion with 165 rooms. It was built as the private residence for the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Construction began in 1919 and was finally completed in 1947.

Tech revolution

We feel we would be remiss if we didn’t directly mention what has happened in the most recent past — the tech revolution. In the late 1990s the wealth gap began to widen again as tech skyrocketed in the U.S. and millionaires and billionaires wanted houses that matched their new stature. Enter: a resurgence of massive mansions.

Take for example, the “Manor,” built in Los Angeles for TV producer Aaron Spelling. It was completed in 1988 and spans 52,500 square feet. Another example is the Bel Air 2006 45,891-square-foot home built for entrepreneur and former chief executive of Packard Bell Computers, Beny Alagem.

A row of mcmansions in Virginia.
Source (re-sized): (Brett VA / Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

What is a McMansion?

When you’re craving a burger, do you go to a steakhouse or do you drive over to McDonald’s? You might have guessed it, McMansions are the “fast food” version of mansions. We don’t mean to sound harsh, or overly critical, but this is where the name itself derives from. And since we’re talking about mansions, we have to mention McMansions.

As mansions were evolving through history, the McMansion was charting its own course. What is a McMansion? It’s a large home that is at least 3,000 square feet, constructed with less expensive materials than a traditional mansion, and is more cookie-cutter in design. McMansions became very popular in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, before the 2008 financial crisis. Today, however, these mass-produced, gargantuan homes may be considered eyesores. In fact, there are even lists of the worst McMansions in America.

Unfortunately, many of these McMansions have turned out to be pretty bad investments for many, and have decreased in value over time. McMansion owners across the country looking to downsize are having a tough time selling them — especially to millennials entering the housing market.

The purpose of a McMansion is to have more living area and a more spacious feeling inside a home. With this design, every child can have their own room, bathrooms are sizable, playrooms or TV rooms are capacious, kitchens are bigger, and office space is separate and secluded. In order to achieve these larger homes while on a budget, they are generally constructed with less expensive materials and forgo the cost of architects or designers.

“A McMansion is a house, often suburban, that is too big for its property,” Washburn explains. “For example, high-end neighborhoods in Houston, Texas, are seeing a growing number of free-standing McMansions on small lots. Some of them are quite nicely designed inside and out, but you could throw a rock and hit your neighbor’s house — which might be only 10 to 20 feet away. That’s never the case in the siting of the best traditional, exurban mansions, which were always set on park-like estates that emphasized privacy.”

Moreover, Wilson gave the example of McMansions that are designed in a classical architectural style, which is rooted in proportions and details that are time honored to be attractive. “Yet, with McMansions the misappropriation of those details and mishandling of those elements — in terms of those proportions — can result in something that is kind of bizarre, and is, therefore, not attractive at all. I think we see that in imitations, like McMansions, that are not well done.”

When it comes to homes, bigger isn’t necessarily better. But as you consider your options, it’s important to choose a home that feels right to you, regardless of any labels.

If you are in the market to buy a mansion, connect with a top buyer’s agent to help with your search. Even if you’re hunting for the next Wayne Manor, let a HomeLight buyer’s agent be your wingman — the Robin to your Batman.

Header Image Source: (Nadine Marfurt / Unsplash)