Great house

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A great house is a large and stately residence; the term encompasses different styles of dwelling in different countries. The name refers to the great size of the house, its perceived opulence, and the makeup of the household rather than to any particular architectural style. To the Western mind, it particularly conjures images of large households of times past in Anglophone countries (especially those of the turn of the 20th Century, i. e. the late Victorian or Edwardian ages in the United Kingdom and the Gilded Age in the United States of America), such as the English country house, the "stately homes of England" and the homes of various "millionaires' row" (or "millionaires' mile") in some U.S. cities such as Newport, Rhode Island) with luxurious appointments and great retinues of indoor and outdoor staff. By some reports, the summer homes of the wealthy at Newport averaged four servants per family member. There was often an elaborate hierarchy among staff, domestic workers in particular.

Today's great houses are limited to the very well-to-do;[1] royalty, aristocrats and people whose professions demand that they entertain, such as those in the diplomatic service and chief executive officers. [2]

In countries with supplies of cheap domestic labour, the middle classes are still able to afford household help, but not approaching the numbers involved in the running of a great house.


The word "mansion" has several meanings, all related to something's place, particular a place one dwells or stays. See more at mansion.

The words mansion, manse and manor all share the same Latin derivation: from the verb manere, "to remain". Although a commonly recognized english word meaning “large house”, technically a ‘’mansion’’ does not exist in this sense: there is no architectural building called a ‘’mansion’’ and no social “mansion”, as using the word to refer to a specific residence falls outside of the rules of etiquette.

It was considered declassé to refer to one's own townhouses, estates or villas (or those of friends) as "mansion"s; indeed some etiquette mavens eschewed use of the term altogether, and modern etiquette books still advise that the terms house, big house or great house be used instead.[3]

What is a mansion?

In Japan, for example, a “mansion” is a word for a nice apartment or condominium. These can often be rented for short stays. [4] However, even in Western society, the word ‘’mansion’’ is not uniquely used to refer to a great house. A New York Times article from 2004 describes the “mansion tax” on New York properties that sell for more than USD 1million. In today’s economy, where properties valued at USD 1MM and over are increasingly common, even a nice apartment can count as a “mansion” for tax purposes. [5]

Use of great house versus use of mansion

Great houses that would probably be thought of as Mansions are usually not named as such, perhaps reflecting the taboo imposed by etiquette. Instead, these properties are described by address (10 Downing Street), family or property name (Monticello, Althorp), the use of the word “house” (White House), or a synonym (Hamilton Grange, Buckingham Palace) or a functional title “The Prime Minister’s residence”, the “presidential palace”, “the Old Rectory”, “The Manse”.

Despite the perception in the public mind, modern use of the word “mansion” seems restricted to realtors, hoteliers and related businesspersons. Even then, it is used very sparingly in high-end establishments, Sotheby’s and Christies, for example, frequently use descriptive words to describe the architecture style of a house rather than employing the term “mansion”.

Great house architectural styles

  • Bungalow
  • Castle (Fortified great house)
  • Chateau
  • Colonial
  • Federal
  • Hacienda
  • Modern
  • Palace
  • Postmodern
  • Revival: Colonial Revival; Greco-Roman Revival (the houses of the antebellum South fall into this category); Neo-classical
  • Roman villa
  • Tudor
  • Villa

Origin of the great house

A common thread in human social structure has been the status symbol, and the house is conspicuous among these. In all cultures, the wealthy and powerful have used the large home as a sign of that wealth and influence.

The great house in the Western tradition can reasonably be traced back to the villas of classical antiquity, although, again, the influence of a culture's own architecture and means of demonstrating importance should not be underestimated.

Management of a great house

On large estates or in families with more than one residence, there may be a steward (or estate manager, a more modern expression) who oversees direction of the entire establishment. Today it is not uncommon for a couple to split the duties of management between them. [6]

Household staff

Practices vary depending on the size of the household and the preference of the employers, but in general the staff is divided into departments [7] run by the:

  • Butler--the head of household staff in most homes; in charge of the pantry, wine cellar and dining room. In a small house the butler also valets for the master of the house. Male staff report to him. The butler is often engaged by the master of the house but usually reports to the lady of the house or sometimes to the housekeeper.
  • Cook--in charge of the kitchen and kitchen staff. Sometimes a chef is employed with several subordinate cooks. The cook usually reports directly to the lady of the house but sometimes to the housekeeper.
  • Housekeeper--responsible for the house and its appearance; in charge of all female servants. In grand homes the butler and cook sometimes report to the housekeeper.

There are modern positions that are a reflection of changing times, such as a personal trainer or personal assistant. Private Secretaries and electricians entered during the modern age. The body guard and the Estate Manager have replaced the Captain of the Guard and the Steward. In general, the traditional jobs and roles are:

Support staff

Junior staff

Grounds staff

An Estate Manager may have charge of the maintenance and care of the grounds, landscaping, and outbuildings (pool, cabana, stables, greenhouse etc.) which is divided into departments run by the:

Support staff

References to the great house in literature

  • “Uppercross Cottage, with its viranda, French windows, and other prettiness, was quite as likely to catch the traveller's eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on.” [8]
  • "Aravis was dressed to look like a superior slavegirl in a great house and wore a veil over her face.” [9]

Depictions of great houses

The complex hierarchy of a staff in a great house has been portrayed in several notable productions for film and television. Among these are:

Notable great houses


  1. Emily Post’s Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners by Elizabeth L. Post. 14th Edition. 1984.: Chapter 11 Employees in Your Home
  2. The International Guild of Professional Butlers estimates that the annual salaries of a 20-25 person household staff total in excess of US$1,000,000.
  3. Emily Post’s Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners by Elizabeth L. Post. 14th Edition. 1984.
  4. Is a website for Tokyo mansions.
  5. ASSETS; It Is a Mansion, So Pay the Tax. By Vivian Marino. Published: September 5, 2004,
  6. Agencies that place and train domestic staff at the upper level usually refer to two tiers of domestic couple: managerial or household help
  7. Chapter 11 Employees in Your Home: The Organization of a Great House
  8. from Persuasion, by Jane Austen.
  9. from The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis.

Further reading

  • The Victorian Great House. Malcolm Airs. 2000.University of Oxford Press. ISBN 0903736292}}
  • James S. Ackerman. The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. Washington DC: Princeton Bollingen. 1990. ISBN 0691002969
  • David Garrard Lowe. Stanford White's New York. New York: Watson Guptill Publications. 1999. ISBN 0823049140
  • Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel. Architects of Charleston. Charleston: University of South Carolina Press. 1992. ISBN 087249828X


  • The International Guild of Professional Butlers []
  • The International Butler’s Academy []
  • Starkey International www.