A mansion is a large dwelling house typically built for the wealthy. The word itself derives (through Old French) from the Latin word mansus the perfect passive participle of manere "to remain" or "to stay". In the Roman Empire, a mansio was an official stopping place on a Roman road, or via, where cities sprang up, and where the villas of provincial officials came to be placed. The English word "manse" originally defined a property large enough for the parish priest to maintain himself, but a mansion is no longer self-sustaining in this way (compare a Roman or medieval villa). 'Manor' comes from the same root— territorial holdings granted to a lord who would remain there— hence it can be seen how the word 'Mansion' came to have its meaning.
The very first 'mansions', as the term is understood today, were probably the villas built for the provincial ruling class of the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, a mansio was an official local placed at strategic points on a Roman road, or via where cities sprang up and often grew into provincial towns. It consisted of large buildings or complexes of buildings, often with official functions, placed in full public view.
Within a Roman city patrician dwellings might be very extensive, but they rarely identified their grandeur to the street, beyond the public amenity of a sheltered portico. For example, Nero's Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill, Rome was organized as a series of glittering pavilions in gardens. It, however, was not a mansion. From architectural uses of that hill comes the word, palace.
Following the fall of Rome the practice of building unfortified villas ceased. For a time castles or chateau had been built in lieu of mansions, buildings considered unsuitable for protecting leaders of nations in troubled times. Today, many of the oldest inhabited mansions around the world began their existence as fortified castles in the Middle Ages and some of these castles have been turned into museums to enable their upkeep. As social conditions slowly changed and stabilized fortifications were able to be reduced, and over the centuries gave way to comfort. Castles were abandoned in favor of imposing but unfortified country residences.
The "country house," as it is known in English speaking places, is a distinct species of mansion.
In the past it was fashionable for the elite society of Europe to pursue the social circuit from country home to country home, with intervals at town homes, so unfortied country houses supplanted castles and the modern mansion began to evolve.
It was in the 16th century that mansions really began to be built in a completely unfortified and gracious style, with gardens, parks and drives. This was the era of Renaissance architecture. Hatfield House is a superb example of a house built during the transition period in England. In Italy classic villas such as Villa Farnese and Villa Giulia were typical, but individually diverse forms, of the new style of mansion.
The uses of these edifices paralleled that of the Roman mansions. It was extremely important for powerful people and families to keep in social contact with each other as they were the primary molders of society. The rounds of visits and entertainments were an essential part of the societal process. The novels of Jane Austen paint an informal picture of it. State business was often discussed and determined in informal settings. Times of revolution reversed this value. During its revolution, France lost a large part of its country homes to incendiary committees, who removed them from the future heritage of the country in anger.
Until World War II it was not unusual for a moderately sized mansion in England such as Cliveden to have an indoor staff of 20 and an outside staff of the same size, while, in a ducal mansion such as Chatsworth House the numbers were far higher. In the great houses of Italy, the number of retainers employed to staff them was often even greater than in England, whole families plus extended relations would often inhabit warrens of rooms in basements and attics. It is doubtful that a 19th century Marchesa would even know the exact numbers who served her. Most European mansions also were the hub of vast estates. A true estate (the mediaeval villa, French ville) always contains at least one complete village and its church. Large estates such as that of Woburn Abbey have several villages attached.
Defining a mansion
In Europe mansions are often given various titles, hinting at their origins - castle, palace, manor, towers, and grange to name but a few. Some such as Sir John Vanbrugh's Castle Howard and Edwin Lutyens's Castle Drogo were built centuries after the last real castle was considered necessary. The term 'palace' in England is reserved to a mansion which is the London residence of a member of the Royal Family or an episcopal seat in a cathedral city. One exception is the great country house Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. In the Netherlands a palace is always connected to a member of the royal family. In the rest of Europe however a palace can be just a medium sized town mansion owned by anybody. In London, Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor.
There is no strict definition of how many rooms a house has to have before it can be termed a mansion, but realtors generally use the classification for houses with at least 7,000 square feet of floorspace. Until the mid 20th century the European mansion would often have a hall, two or three salons or drawing rooms, library, billiards room, ball room, dining room, breakfast room, morning room, study and numerous bedrooms. Until the middle of the last century European mansions were often short of bathrooms, often only two or three in a house of 20 plus bedrooms. In addition to the principal bedrooms would be far more for the staff usually on the uppermost or attic floors.
In London, the "mansion blocks" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are up-market apartment buildings with the exterior design of a mansion.
Nineteenth century development
The 19th century saw particularly in the U.S. a new type of mansion being built, often smaller than the older European mansions, but in their own way just as beautiful, The Breakers in Rhode Island is a fine example, as is the nearby, but completely different, Watts Sherman House.
Fifth Avenue in New York at this time was lined with numerous mansions, designed by the leading architects of the day, many in European gothic styles, built by the many families who were making their fortunes, and thus achieving their social aspirations, in the mid 19th century. However, nearly all of these have now been demolished, thus depriving New York of a boulevard to rival, in the architectural sense, any in Paris, London or Rome—where the many large mansions and palazzos built or remodeled during this era still survive. Ma«nsions built in the countryside were not spared either. One of the most spectacular estates of the U.S. Whitemarsh Hall was demolished in 1980, along with its extensive gardens, to make way for suburban developments.
Even in Europe some 19th-century mansions were often built as replicas of older houses, the Château de Ferrières in France was inspired by Mentmore Towers which in turn is a copy of Wollaton Hall. Other mansions were built in the new and innovative styles of the new era such as the arts and crafts style: The Breakers is a pastiche of an Italian Renaissance Palazzo; Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is a faithful mixture of various French châteaux. One of the most enduring and most frequently copied styles for a mansion is the palladian - particularly so in the 18th century. However, the gothic style was probably the most popular choice of design in the 19th century. The most bizarre example of this was probably Fonthill Abbey which actually set out to imitate the mansions which had truly evolved from mediaeval gothic abbeys following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
Mansions built during and after the 19th century seldom were supported by the large estates of their predecessors. These new mansions were often built as the week-end retreats of businessmen who commuted to their offices by the new railways, which enabled them to leave the city more easily. Before this era most owners of mansions were the old aristocracy.
In Latin America, with its feudal colonial and post-colonial past, the grand rural estate, the Hacienda, Estancia, in Portuguese speaking Brazil Fazenda or Estãncia, with the mansion as its stately center, is a characteristic feature.
Naturally mansions followed European architectural styles. Whereas until the second half of the 19th century Portugal and Spain as the colonial (or former colonial) powers were the eminent models for architecture and upperclass lifestyle, towards the end of the 19th century they were sometimes replaced by then more dominant powers like France or England.
In comparably developed, densely populated countries like Mexico, feudal estates and their mansions were as grand and stately as in the mediterranean old world, whereas where estates were founded in the sparsely populated remote aereas like the Pampa of Argentina or Uruguay, where iron pillars, doors, windows, furniture had to be brought from Europe by ship and afterwards oxcart, buildings were smaller, but normally still aspiring to evoke a stately impression, often featuring the Mirador (the lookout or tower, see also Belvedere)
The "modern" mansion
Mansions built during the last and present centuries usually have specially designed rooms meant to accommodate leisure activities of a particular kind. Many will have a conservatory or greenhouse, while others will have an indoor or outdoor swimming pool or an Arts and crafts room. Others will have all of these features. The relative importance of these specially designed rooms changes with the times: At the beginning of the 20th century no true mansion would have been built without a large room to house a private library, while at the beginning of the 21st century the presence of a big room designed for a home theatre or cinema is a must. Most recently, mansions have been built with integrated domotics.
A McMansion (a term that originated in North America in the 1980s) is often a speculatively-built, suburban house that incorporates numerous upscale design features on a floor plan of 2000 to 5000 square feet. They are typically built from standard plans with some cosmetic detailing and design changes available to the buyer. In contrast, a "real" mansion is normally designed by an architect to the exact needs of the clients, is significantly larger (typically, a minimum of 7,000 square feet), and contains many more features and creature comforts.
The costly time spent by an experienced architect is a better indicator of the lasting status of a mansion than the number of its rooms, its total size, or its special amenities. The homes and mansions designed by the late Richard Neutra and Quinlan Terry are good examples of modern designs which have been nearly perfectly tailored to fit a particular customer.
A modern mansion today may not necessarily be limited to a single house standing alone. Compounds, or a grouping of larger houses have become more popular. The Kennedy Compound is an example of one family building large houses on a single plot.
- Historic Mansions and Estates in Latin America
- Inside a Victorian Mansion in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill
- Mansions for Sale from Christie's Great Estates
- vineyard estate in Uruguay from the 1880 (a realtor's page)
- Mansion Blocks in London, History and Sales from Greene & Coes:Mansión