Big House

Boy, houses are getting huge these days. According to the US Census, the average new home grew to 2,434 square feet in 2005 from 1,660 square feet in 1973. Mega houses of 3,000 square feet and well beyond — “McMansions” — represent a quarter of all new construction.

That got me to thinking about the modest house I grew up in.

As it went, in 1964, we'd been living in an 850-square-foot ranch, one built with GI Bill money after World War II. I was two then, the youngest of three, and my mother was pregnant with my sister Lisa. We were in dire need of a bigger house.

One day, as the Big Guy drove home from work, he noticed a house was being built in a new housing plan. He stopped the car and paid a visit to the builder.

The house hadn't been sold yet, he learned. The builder was eager to sell, and the Big Guy, relying on the same “I'm-broke-as-Hell-buddy” techniques he used to buy cars cheaply, negotiated several extras as part of the deal.

There must have been a rule in the early 1960s that every house built in the suburbs should have a brick fa├žade on the bottom and white aluminum siding on the top, and our box-shaped house was no exception. It had four bedrooms, one full bathroom, and one half-bathroom.

And it was all of 1,500 square feet.

My parents began improving the place right away. The Big Guy planted grass, trees and shrubs, while my mother painted and wall-papered. They renovated the basement into a family room. They added a cement porch with a roof out back — a porch that never wanted for a cool breeze.

By 1974, we had six children and the house was bursting at the seams. The Big Guy sold some stock and added on a fifth bedroom and full bath on the first floor — creating a 1,700 square foot house.

We did a lot of living there. For 34 years the front door was never locked, and friends and relatives came and went at all hours. We had a million birthday parties and family gatherings there. Every emotion under the sun — love, anger, laughter, sadness — was experienced there.

I remember getting home many a night to see my mother and the Big Guy enjoying a bowl of ice cream in their bedroom, while watching the Johnny Carson Show. Or how Jingles, our dog, rushed out from under the shrubs to greet me. Or how we enjoyed so many meals on the back porch — grilled chicken, home-grown tomatoes and sun tea.

The modest size of the house forced us to live together — there was simply no way to avoid each other. We had to learn how to share — certainly how to negotiate — and how to get along, all valuable skills to have in life.

And never once did we feel our home was small.

I don't understand how so many families do it now. They have fewer kids and much bigger houses — houses that are sometimes so large, its inhabitants don't often come across each other.

Maybe that's the difference. When we were kids, our parents made their decisions based solely on what was best for us — our education, our values, our future. They didn't measure themselves so much by the things they had but by how well their children turned out.

But today too many folks are caught up in the material trap — the need to build giant homes to impress. Sure, there's always been a desire to “keep up with the Joneses” but, man, if today's houses are any measure, it's all we're thinking about.

The little house I grew up in may have been modest by material measures, but it was a mansion by the measures that really count. I can't think of a bigger place to grow up in.

Tom Purcell's weekly political humor column runs in newspapers and Web sites across America. His email address is; his web address is

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