What does a $155 million house reveal about us?


People have been talking about a plan to build the most expensive spec house in history in the exclusive Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont. The ski resort-home will boast 53,000 square feet of living space, larger than the new public library in Bozeman. It will have a heated driveway, an enclosed chairlift for direct access to the nearby slopes, and cost some $155 million. Buyers are not expected to require a bank loan. After all, you need to be a millionaire just to ante up at the gate to this high-toned subdivision.

Mind you, there are already dozens of opulent homes in the Yellowstone Club and elsewhere around my quality-of-life state. My wife has been working in them of late. She’s picked up part-time work with a cleaning outfit that spiffs up homes after construction in anticipation of the new owners. It’s menial work. It’s, well, kind of disgusting to get pulled into the vortex of excess.

It also pays significantly more per hour than her other job, working with children in the public schools.

Regularly she comes home shaking her head. Once she worked all day, an eight-hour shift, cleaning a single bathroom. She reports that she is only one of many workers devoted to each of these homes, shelters that will be occupied, in many cases, only a couple of weeks every year.

There are construction crews, of course, and the usual subcontractors of electricians, plumbers, roofers. But these places require whole teams to wire and install entertainment paraphernalia -- televisions, satellites, computers, movie screens, sound systems, security. There are interior decorators who fly in from New York to pick out furniture and carpets and curtains. You know the stuff -- heavy pine chairs, deer antler lamps, leather upholstery. Western cliché. There are “detail” teams who buy everything from hand towels to soap to food in the fridge. There are cooks and maids and butlers and drivers and landscapers and technicians of every stripe, busy as bees preparing the lair for the queen.

The argument has been made that this pyramid of employment is good for the economy. All these people wouldn’t make enough money otherwise. They’d all have to figure out another way to support themselves, or go elsewhere, or live on less.

Why, some ask, can’t these rich people spend their money on something more redeeming, more charitable? It turns out that in most cases, they do that, too. Not only can they live in unbelievable luxury, but they have enough money to be philanthropic to boot.

I wonder, though . . . just because a person can buy a $155 million mansion, and still assuage social guilt with philanthropy, and be an art patron and a world traveler and a political player too, does that mean it’s OK? Maybe someone can afford it, and support the local economy, my economy, in the bargain, but at what price? Once that big house is built high in the mountains at the base of a ski resort, a chunk of what was once wild and dramatic land, there for all, including, presumably, some wildlife, vanishes. Even if you or I could get past the front gates, the country isn’t there any more.

Then there’s the matter of the resources squandered in the building and maintenance of structures such as this. We all consume to live. But in a place like this the scale is stunning. A Bozeman resident calculated that the propane required each year by this one dwelling, and its heated driveway, would power 500 average homes. One begins to wonder if this opulence is ethically supportable. In what way is it justifiable?

Now that’s been fun, hasn’t it? These behemoth structures are easy to vilify, with their covered heliports, indoor gyms, bathrooms the size of my house. So very over the top. Problem is, by pointing fingers at these bloated shelters, we wriggle away from confronting our own contributions to the problem. Could we do away with one of our cars? Do we really need the extra bedroom or remodeled kitchen? Is it necessary to drive to every kid’s soccer game on every weekend? Did we remember the canvas bags on the last trip to the grocery store? No, most of us won’t be lining up to bid on the $155 million super-mansion, but what else are we queuing up for?

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.

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