Good times not measured in square feet

Sometimes you need children to set you straight. They are so attuned to what they like and what feels good. The status-value of things doesn’t register as much as with adults.

An “aunt” to three kids, ages 7 to 12, I recently invited them and their parents to a rented vacation house. There was great swimming nearby, a honky-tonk town with a carousel and pretty country roads. Toward the end, I asked them what they most enjoyed about their vacation. They answered “the house” — specifically the room they shared upstairs, a tiny space with barely enough floor to accommodate a bed and two inflated mattresses.

It was there that they horsed around, played with their iPads and chatted into the night. They were so happy sharing this little clubhouse, as their parents kept watch downstairs. The house was their Badger Cottage.

Mr. Badger’s Cottage is the cozy house in the classic children’s book “The Wind in the Willows.” After the animal guests gathered around the kitchen fireplace, Mr. Badger led them to a cramped sleeping quarters with two beds covered in lavender-scented linen. “The Mole and the Water Rat tumbled in between the sheets in great joy and contentment,” wrote author Kenneth Grahame.

The book contrasts the warm and protected Badger Cottage with Toad Hall, the coldly magnificent mansion owned by the solitary but good-hearted Mr. Toad. As Rat says generously about Mr. Toad: “He is the best of animals. Perhaps he’s not very clever and it may be that he is boastful and conceited. But he has some great qualities, has Toady.”

The housing bubble inspired the building of Toad Halls across the country. Rattling around these instant mansions may have been a price worth paying for those wishing to impress, but they could feel awfully impersonal. The Wall Street Journal now reports a revived interest in extraordinarily super-sized homes.

For example, a trial lawyer recently built a new 61-room complex on three waterfront acres on Martha’s Vineyard, an island where wealth tends to be low-key. Neighbors were appalled, but plopping a 23,000-square-foot compound in an area of modest cottages wasn’t about fitting in. The great room with its paneled 30-foot ceiling resembles Toad’s immense dining hall in the book.

Last winter, the Journal reported on a new trend in living big: “trophy basements.” Homebuyers demanding opulence now covet vast underground living spaces. (Badgers know all about underground living.) For example, an architect in Beverly Hills designed a 14,000-square-foot basement with a grand ballroom and 50-seat theater.

Builders say that buyers of immense spaces seek room for such luxuries as collection galleries, shooting ranges and morning bars. The builders add that designing one of these humongous residences doesn’t feel much like doing a residential project. It’s more akin to creating a shopping center or office park, with golf carts for visiting various areas and complex security systems.

The late celebrity decorator Mark Hampton — known for dishing luxury to his well-heeled clients — was never impressed by raw square-footage. “Before I encountered the seductive luxuries of Porthault linens and the coffee tray brought by the maid who comes to open the shutters,” Hampton wrote, “my favorite guest room was my Aunt Edith’s sleeping porch in northern Indiana, with its six iron bedsteads and its ancient bedding … and its aroma of pine trees coming through the screens.” The place offered “perfect summer memories,” he added. “The total effect of my aunt’s welcoming disposition was marvelous to me.”

Oh, to be Aunt Edith in the summer memories of frolicking youngsters. She couldn’t rely on a subterranean bowling alley to make everyone happy. Could that be why she did?

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is

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