A few times a year, in the city where I live, there are house tours organized to raise money for worthy causes. Wealthy people who are rightly proud of their beautiful homes whisk their families away for a weekend so the rest of us looky-loos can buy our tickets and peek at some of the more lavish homes in and around the city. Whatever the season, designers and floral businesses stage these homes appropriately so those of us not in the one-percent can look at state-of-the-art kitchens and modern lighting fixtures to get ideas for renovations that we’ll never be able to afford.
As far as I’m concerned, everybody wins. Money is raised for the less fortunate, the home-owners open their doors to a parade of strangers and most of us walking through these homes get a bit of a thrill looking at how “the other half” lives.
What interested me the most about this experience was not seeing how rich some fabulously wealthy people are. But given a similar amount of money, how differently people spend it. And the contrasts are stark.
Firstly, everyone has a beautiful kitchen. European appliances, imported back-splashes, stylish lighting and usually two ovens. I’m curious how often the two ovens are really used in these kitchens. And everyone has an island in their kitchen with at least four designer stools and it usually separates the cooking area from some kind of family room/den with comfortable seating, a fire place and a huge wall-mounted television, with not a wire or cable box in sight.
Those are the things they all had in common. I guess because everyone wants a nice kitchen when you have money to throw around. But beyond that, the similarities were more rare.
Old and modern, rural and urban. Old money and new money.
The clearest contrasts were the art on the walls and the age of the furniture. The old money owners had antiques everywhere, four hundred year old tapestries draping large walls, imported Asian furniture, lamps and tables and chairs that had history. Whether it be family history or simply an innate history that evoked meaningful feelings when they had been purchased.
I’ve always wondered about the richest people in Ottawa. There aren’t many ten million dollar homes so I’m interested in what they spend their money on. I always assumed second properties and travel but I really think art and antique furniture must be given consideration as major expenses for some.
The newer homes, custom-built by first-generation wealth looked a lot less distinctive. Maybe owned by someone like a hockey player or a business genius. These places, while often more grand in scale, were discernibly different looking. No antiques, more TVs and pool tables, bigger yards and swimming pools and little in the way of art. Or at least little in the way of art that had any provenance. And my wife made what I thought was an astute observation. In some houses, 5,000 square foot behemoths, we didn’t see any books. Maybe a cookbook or two or a business book but nothing in the way of literature. One house had more ovens and more bathrooms and more fireplaces than it did books.
In the couple of houses that impressed me the most, I learned about art and design and the flow of lighting and how in some cultures, things we wouldn’t think twice about were considered good luck in an almost spiritual way. Discovering these little details enriched the experience for me more than seeing a signed guitar or a framed hockey jersey would. And how many living rooms does one family really need? In some cases it seemed like there were more living rooms than people living there.
I’ve speculated how I’d live if someone gave me $30M dollars. I would certainly live well. And drink better wine and own a nicer car but I think I’d probably spend most of it on travel. Game of Thrones on a seventy-inch screen TV with a surround-sound speaker system wouldn’t be much more memorable than it is on what we have now. There’s a world out there I haven’t seen. And I don’t think I could find it in a McMansion in Manotick. I’d rather look at a beautiful painting than a beautiful pool table.
I’d really like to think I’d give most of the fortune away or do good works with it but I’m allowing myself a day of whimsy. And today I choose the beautiful old things over the expensive new ones.