Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Homes: Weeks' Salisbury, Romney's Six

May 30, 2012, 8:30 p.m.

How Much Home is Enough?

There are two kinds of people who fail to recognize, and respond to, Iowa's tourist attractions: (1) those who live in Iowa, and (2) those who don't. The area around Des Moines, the state capital located in the center of the state, has a rich cluster of attractions.

During a 32-hour stay in Des Moines last weekend, I explored what was, for me, a new one -- although built in the mid-1920s -- called the "Salisbury House." Supported by the Salisbury House Foundation, here is a picture of the front, taken from the Salisbury House Web site:

The structure is the creation of Carl Weeks and his wife Edith. Born in 1876, Weeks created the Armand cosmetics company in 1915. Buying cold cream by the barrel, face powder by the ton, and perfume by the gallon -- which he then sold by the ounce in attractive containers -- produced enough profit in 8 years for him to begin building this 9-plus-acre lot, house, art and antique collection for $3 million 1920s dollars.

How much would that be in today's dollars? My rule of thumb -- based on 1930s prices for candy bars, ice cream cones, and automobiles (standard Fords and Chevrolets were then $500-700) -- is that most things have increased by at least 20 to 30 times. In today's dollars that would make the cost of building Salisbury House and buying its contents -- if they could even be found today -- somewhere between $60 and $100 million.

There are many reasons why the Salisbury House is worth a visit -- the Steinway in its hand-carved body, the surround-sound organ built into the house itself, a tapestry and a suit of armor from the 1500s, the shrunken heads collection, the rare book room.

Some of my little iPhone pictures of these and other items (and rooms) can be found here, and with more, and of better quality, on the Salisbury House Web site.

With the current awareness of the 99% and the 1%, however, those items (and more) are not the primary significance of this house. From my perspective, its importance lies in helping us to better understand the thinking and motives of the 1% -- the folks who are increasingly ruling over us.

The 19th Century, New York City Tammany Hall political Boss Tweed used to say, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I do the nominating." (Quoted in Susan Welch, Understanding American Government (2003); "William M. Tweed," Today our choice is still at least paid for and approved, if not actually chosen by, individuals in New York City. It's just that they're Wall Street bankers instead of political bosses. They're leaving the voting to us. They've just done the nominating -- of two relatively self-controlled, bright, centrist Harvard graduates, neither of whom is inclined to reduce their multi-million-dollar bonuses or send any of them to prison. (For my take on Romney, see "Why Mitt Romney?" March 22, 2012.)

So why would anyone want to build, and live in, a home like Salisbury House, let alone amidst all those artifacts?

One of the influential books I encountered in junior high or high school was Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. ("Thorstein Bunde Veblen . . . (July 30, 1857 – August 3, 1929) was an American economist and sociologist, and a leader of the institutional economics movement. Besides his technical work he was a popular and witty critic of capitalism, as shown by his best known book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)." Thorstein Veblen

It was Veblen who opened my eyes to what he called "conspicuous consumption" by the wealthy classes, and those who aspired to join them. Molly Ivins expressed it as the philosophy of wealthy Texans who believed that "more is better, and too much is not enough." ("Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money for and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power — either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth . . . a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status. Moreover, invidious consumption . . . [denotes the intention] to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status." "Conspicuous Consumption,"

Doesn't this make more understandable -- not more acceptable, but more understandable -- why CEOs and college football coaches want multi-million-dollar salaries, and lesser dignitaries believe they simply can't get by on a paltry $150 or $200,000 a year salary plus benefits in a town like Iowa City? It's not about "need." It's not even about wants. These folks already have more stuff than they can use. It's about making a statement.

In Weeks' day this was done with one humongous home, designed to look like old money from the outside (he told contractors they will have failed if it didn't look at least 100 years old) while outfitted with all the latest modern conveniences on the inside. (Salisbury House had phones in all 42 rooms, electricity, two grand kitchens, and so forth.)

In Romney's day, it's done with multiple homes -- he has (or had) six, plus the horse farm "where the Romneys use a Mediterranean-style guesthouse as a getaway."
Trip Gabriel, "In Rarefied Sport, a View of the Romneys’ World," New York Times, May 27, 2012, p. A1.

"Want a Sixteenth Century tapestry?" "Hell no; I'd rather have another house." It's just a different way of thinking.

Here are pictures of some of the other locations (a couple of which may have been sold recently), some found on

Here is his little ski cabin in Park City, Utah:

His $10-million New Hampshire home in Wolfeboro, on Lake Winnepesaukee [photo credit: Jim Cole/AP]:

There are (or were) three other homes in Belmont, Massachusetts, a townhouse in Boston, and the family home in Michigan. Meredith Galante, "A Peek At The Homes Of The Republican Presidential Hopefuls," Business Insider, December 29, 2011 ("Mitt Romney owns the most homes of all the candidates.").

But his current home-building project is in California, on the beach at LaJolla. Paula Wilson, "Mitt Romney’s Home: It’s the 'Big House' (a $12 Million One) for the Presidential Candidate,", May 3, 2012. Despite the price tag it is, alas, too small. So Romney's plan is to tear it down and put up something four times bigger. Simon, "Mitt Romney’s Beach Home: Plans to Tear Down and Quadruple the Size,", January 4, 2012. The plan has not been universally welcomed by his new neighbors. Michael Barbaro, "The Candidate Next Door," New York Times, June 7, 2012, p. D1.

This is where the famous garage with its car elevator will be located -- just in case Ann Romney somehow manages to drive both of her two Cadillacs to LaJolla and needs to fit them in an already-full four-car garage. Ashley Parker, "For Romney, a Four-Car Garage With Its Own Elevator," Caucus/New York Times, March 27, 2012.

Here's a picture of the shabby digs that are there now:

And Obama?

Well, he's already living in the only house that Mitt Romney wanted to live in that Romney hasn't yet acquired. But he sure has his eye on it.

So, how big, or how many, homes are enough? It all depends. Do you want to actually live in the house comfortably? Or do you just want other people to know that you can afford to live in it -- and, of course, that they can't.

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