I grew up about two blocks from the unpretentious little house that would one day become the Bella Villa Mediterraneo. I remember it looking quite nice before the transition, a lot like the house next door (figure 1).

Figure 1. Unpretentious house next door to the Bella Villa Mediterraneo. Photo: author.

But I moved away, and upon a visit to see my mom in the early aughts I discovered that the unpretentious little bungalow of my youth had blossomed into a corpse flower (figure 2).

Figure 2. La Bella Villa Mediterraneo. photo: author.

I apologize for the lousy pictures from 2004. But you can see that the BVM has been sawn up and remodeled so that instead of a sensible house like the one next door (figure 1), we have a bogus Mediterranean villa, a Liliput Italian palazzo designed for an owner seemingly gnawed by folie de grandeur.

The house now sports two ‘wings’ marked by add-on extensions from the house on the east and west ends (figures 2, 3). Foam quoins decorate the edges of these wings, complete with carriage lamps affixed to them. French doors are set into each wing, ready to be thrown open to the thundering traffic on the major street the house fronts.

Wonderfully, small porches extend from each of the French doors, turned into something like balconies by a set of bright white balusters terminated by pedestals stuccoed beige to match the house (figures 4, 5).

The balustrade continues to mark off the porch extending from the center mass of the house, which features another set of French doors. Floppy potted palms and plastic topiaries symmetrically flank the line of the central door, and of course there is another set of carriage lamps. None of these doors is evidently used, to judge by the overgrown palms and the vase on pedestal that occupies the center of the flagstone path up the central axis of the house. One imagines the day-to-day in and out-ing is done through a door giving out to the latticework ‘garage’. The *chef’s kiss* goes to the ridiculous shutters that flank all of the French doors, some of them, to my eye, not hung quite straight.

Figure 3. BVM, 3/4 view. Photo: author.

There is a place for balusters, for shutters, for French doors, and for quoins; symmetry is a time-honored principle of architecture. So am I just being a troll to censure the BVM? I don’t think so. Even if the owner had no architectural training and designed it, the bits and pieces applied to the façade are in a puzzlingly masterful disjunction.

Look for balusters in neoclassical architecture, high up on the façade; and in fact, look for them on large stone buildings where they are not simple railings, as here, but heavy stone ornaments that articulate rooflines. Quoins are, as their shape suggests, meant to represent the heavy rusticated blocks that hold up the framework of large buildings. Look, if you went to Rome and took a hammer to the quoins of the historic palazzi there, you’d probably find they were in many cases stucco and not behemoth masonry. But you’d find such quoins, fake or real, on buildings where they correspond to the scale. Imagine the weight that a stack of roughly foot-square blocks of stone could hold up, and then compare that to the flimsy asbestos-shake roof here. Had the designer brought in ceramic tiles for the roof, maybe we could talk, but a smooth brownish-grey asbestos roof? It’s preposterous.

Shutters have a functional purpose: to block out light and protect the windows behind them. They swing in on hinges at the window’s outer edges and fasten when the two sides meet at the center of the window. The BVM shutters wouldn’t even reach to the inside of the first vertical column of window panes of their respective doors. So, sure, yes, nonfunctional decorative shutters are a thing, and almost certainly commoner than real ones. But to be architecturally respectable and not (again) preposterous, they should be sized to correspond to the window. And why not have shutters on the other smaller windows flanking the central French doors, or around the windows on the west side of the house, just visible in figure 3?

Figure 4. BVM, east wing. Photo: author.

And what’s with all the sterile white trim? The stucco and quoins are a warm Mediterranean color; but the blindingly white trim is just not a feature of Mediterranean villas. And lastly, the delicate weave of the latticework on fences and garage belongs to something other than the world of Mediterranean palazzi with their ponderous architecture.

What we have, therefore, is a collection of signifiers drawn from prestige architecture and applied in such a way as to seek to impress the passersby on the street; no interest or expense is taken to consistently carry the decoration through around the house: see again the side in figure 3.

Figure 5. BVM, west wing. Photo: author.

Charles Jencks, the architectural historian, wrote a small but wonderful book titled Daydream Houses of Los Angeles (Rizzoli, 1978), and one chapter focused on the remodeling of modest bungalows like ours. The houses Jencks found, photographed, and described, were unpretentious little houses whose façades had been remodeled in the 1960s and early 1970s with sometimes brilliant and allusive appliqué features drawn with a tongue-in-cheek randomness from throughout the history of architecture, conscious sites of camp display. Might we read the Bella Villa Mediterraneo in the same key as the cultural movement Jencks found in what he called ‘boys’ town’?

In the 90s and 00s I noted the growth of large stands of hideous McMansions in San Diego and its exurbs. As Kate Wagner, the author of (among other things) McMansion Hell, has shown, McMansions are hallmarked by clumsy appropriation of historical styles in pursuit of a fakey grandness, chaotically inconsistent design, and shoddy construction. Perhaps the owner of the BVM witnessed those houses being built (there are a lot of them north of La Jolla, for example) and decided to execute a wee bungalow remodel sending up the design sensibility of the McMansioneers. Were the BVM a wee campy McMansion, it would be entirely redeemed as an ironic parody display.

In any event, we may thank God that in His providence (and the owner in his folly or campiness) have gifted us with the BVM.

Appendix I. BVM today.

Figure 6. BVM in c. 2021. Photo: Google street view. Copyright: Google.

Google’s street view, dated 2 years ago (figure 6), shows that the BVM exterior has been repainted a uniform white, which has the effect of greatly downplaying the campier details of balusters and quoins. The fine eucalyptus tree has been removed, and the owner has screened the house from the street with an oasis, if you will, of palms.

Simultaneously, the entrance path up the central axis has been opened up and conventionalized with pavers and a pair of flanking vases which replace the older one that blocked the axis. The French doors with mullions that were in place on axis in 2004 are now French windows, and all the shutters have been removed.

Presumably the landscaping means to block the noise and hubub of the busy street the house faces. Hiding the façade is so alien to the millennial remodel’s goal of display that one suspects the property has changed hands in the meantime. Alas, the Camelot that was the Bella Villa Mediterraneo was but a momentary dream.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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