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[Fantasy and reality]

Feel the space—and space, and space …

The Parade of Homes is an exercise in excess

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Nine thousand square feet of green living: Marquis at the Parade of Homes.
Photo: T.R. Witcher

I’m standing on top of a hill in MacDonald Highlands, one of the super-exclusive communities in Las Vegas—the kind where you usually have to pass through two or three gates to get anywhere—and I’m looking down on the Vegas Valley. It’s the final weekend of the 2009 Las Vegas Parade of Homes, the annual tour of new, really big custom houses in the Valley.

Yes, it’s all a bit obscene in this economy, these enormous houses with their dozen flat-screen TVs and their nouveau riche mediocrity of taste, but that hasn’t stopped any of us from coming. Business has been brisk, says one greeter: “People like to look at these houses for some reason.”

Maybe it’s because from up here, the recession doesn’t look too bad! Those of us who have parted with our $25 to look in on the best that money can buy are of all types. One or two might actually have the money to buy one of these homes, but for the rest of us, it’s that peculiar and American dance of class recognition—where we simultaneously enact our rituals of envy and hope (maybe I will someday live here!), and at the same time enact the counter-ritual of sly put-downs and criticism, an acceptance of the fact that, probably, only a handful of us at best will ever make this kind of money, and really, who needs this much house anyway?

Both fantasies are necessary. The first keeps us buying and dreaming and working hard; the second reminds us that if everyone had a crib on the mountaintop, itwouldn’t really be the mountaintop any longer.

So how do you know you’ve graduated beyond your standard McMansion and have entered the big leagues? Look for the following signs: an elevator; at least four washers and dryers (which should look like an escape capsule out of Star Trek); mammoth water features; a bathroom and walk-in closet and balcony for every bedroom; four-car garages the size of aircraft hangars; home theaters; kitchens big enough to contain “secondary kitchens” that are still bigger than yours. Past that? Outdoor showers. Outdoor beds. Dog showers. Wine cellars. Wine tasting rooms. (Don’t ask.)

All but one of the 12 homes in this year’s festival are located in either MacDonald Highlands or Summerlin. The consensus among visitors is that the Summerlin homes are better. The human capacity to quickly be underwhelmed never fails to impress.

At one of the homes in the Highlands (6,400 square feet, $4.7 million), people are dutifully writing their names down for a chance to win $500 Nordstrom gift cards. By the time I reach the cavernous master bathroom, I and two others have rated the mammoth house a solid “eh …”

I note that I don’t feel too bad heading home to my little 1,500-square-foot box, having seen what the residential mountaintop looks like. One of my companions, an architecture student, responds that she wants to be more impressed. “I want to feel bad. I want to see flames coming out of places it’s not supposed to be coming out of.”

At another house nearby, one spacious bedroom has only a view of a rocky hill. A woman pokes her head and jokes, “This must be the room for the friend you don’t like much.”

The final two houses in MacDonald Highlands are meant to be the showstoppers. The first, 11,000 square feet and $10 million, looks and feels like the lobby of a resort—I’m certain a parking garage is tucked out of sight nearby. The bell-ringer is a three-story indoor water wall that reaches from the basement up to a square skylight, visible from balconies on the upper floors. Downstairs, a large exercise room looks out to a wet statue of the Buddha. It’s important to remember that it’s not about the material consumption. It’s about the cultivation of inner wealth. Signs adorn nearly every locked patio door. “Patios are for your enjoyment upon purchase.”

But this house can’t compare to its neighbor across the street. This is an orgy of space. 16,000 square feet. $12.5 million. Stupid space. Its rooms are big the way the spaceship in 2001 is big. And with a similarly chilly white aesthetic, stuffed in one room with a grand piano and in another with a lush, heart-shaped red couch.

This house features his and hers closets which, together, are bigger than my garage. But one couple spends a few moments puzzling over a large cabinet door that opens to a tall but very shallow space. None of us can figure out what it’s for.

“They don’t make sense,” says one man. “Not for this kind of money.”

“I’m sure they tell you in the brochure,” his wife suggests. (Um, no.)

Is it the secret belief of the less-than-wealthy that we have better taste than our more financially fortunate brothers and sisters? That if you were to give any of us $10 million to spend on a house, that somehow ours would be … not more impressive, but somehow better?

Eventually, the views become a little rote—though this is really not the fault of the view but rather of the reality that you are sitting there watching it with a bunch of strangers, in the middle of the day, with little blue booties on your shoes, a lame movie playing somewhere nearby and no drink in your hand. The real delight of these monster houses is their sense of spatial play. Stand anywhere, and the house, not unlike a museum, beckons you in many different directions, and as you ascend this staircase or round that corner, you never know what will greet you.

“God,” I overhear one visitor remark. “It goes on forever.”

The most inventive house I see in Summerlin is a stunning modern affair of modest rooms built around nature. The swimming pool, for instance, goes under the breakfast table (and can be seen through a glass floor); the master bedroom has a glass floor looking down into a tropical landscape—the bed itself is cantilevered out from the wall (which means no part of the bed touches the ground)—and virtually every bathroom looks out to some private garden with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Yet even here—despite the incredible view from an upstairs entertainment room (damn, it’s hard not to be a little impressed here!)—the details (black pebbles everywhere, serenely blank walls and floors) positively shout their Zen affectations.

An idea for next year? The Parade of Small Homes. Let’s see what these hotshot custom designers can do with 1,500 square feet. How about 1,000?

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