The Barker Mansion and the melancholy of wealth
David R. Weiss
Reflections on the melancholy that crept over me during a recent tour of the Barker Mansion …
In Michigan City, Indiana, the Barker Mansion stands as a symbol of wealth in the early 20th century. Make that almost unparalleled wealth. The mansion was the home of John H. Barker, who, at the turn of the twentieth century, built a home after the fashion of an English manor house. When completed the mansion featured 38 rooms, 7 fireplaces, and 10 bathrooms. Its furnishings reflected the Barkers’ tastes: elegant, handcrafted, imported, opulent—and communicated their status as elite among the elite.
At the time of his death in 1910, Barker’s worth was estimated to be between $50 and $60 million. There are a variety of ways to compare that worth to the present day. By any measure, Barker would be a billionaire in today’s economy. And when comparing his wealth as a share of GDP (gross domestic product) back then, he would stand comfortably alongside the four major Walton (Wal-Mart) family heirs, at somewhere close to $25 billion dollars. By this measure, John H. Barker would rank #15 on the Forbes list of the richest people on the planet. Elite among the elite, to be sure.
Barker’s daughter, Catherine Barker Hickox, gave the mansion to the city of Michigan City in 1968, and today the mansion, complete with most of its original furnishings, is a historic site, offering guided tours and hosting civic functions and weddings. Touring the mansion today, as I did this past week, it’s hard not to be awed by the home, not to feel a frequent twitch of envy.
But, for me at least, it was also hard not to feel an uncomfortable wince of melancholy more than once. The mansion is nicknamed “the house that freight cars built” because Barker made his fortune building freight cars for the burgeoning railroads. That is, of course, a euphemism, since the wealth that built the house came, ultimately, not from freight cars, but from the labor of thousands of men whose sweat (hopefully) managed to feed and house their own families while somehow multiplying exponentially into the millions of dollars in Barker’s bank account and into the opulent excess of his own home. When an employee fraudulently misdirects money from a business to him- or herself, we call it embezzlement. When the owner does it we call it success.
It is an awkward truth that in capitalism wealth is created by injustice. We use all manner of economic semantics to trick our minds and assuage our consciences, but the bottom line is simply this: if the owner gets rich it’s because the workers added value to the product for which they were not fairly rewarded. That’s not a very patriotic thing to say out loud, but it is true, and so we ought to say it every now and then lest we forget it altogether.
Still, my own melancholy in the mansion has roots even deeper than a labor-class critique. My melancholy is rooted in the “we”: we call it success. The Barker Mansion is a monument to the mythic lure of the 1%; the temptation that infects almost all of us to see such luxury and to think wistfully “wouldn’t it be nice …”
No. No. No. It wouldn’t be nice to live like that. Because that life is only possible when “counter balanced” by the proportionate poverty of countless others whose lives are not tourist sites, whose hovels we scurry by in the daylight and avoid assiduously after dark.
Yes, Barker was a noted philanthropist (and his daughter perhaps even more so). But charity that comes from such exorbitant excess merely distracts from the more pressing systemic questions about how anyone comes to hold such wealth in the first place. It is simply not possible—neither a century ago and even less so today—for a household of such means to be anything other than an ecological and economic obscenity; an insult to the intrinsic dignity of the whole of humanity and to the finite and fragile integrity of the planet. And yet … we (I!) ogle enviously. Hence, my melancholy.
Where are the historic sites that go on to pose the stark question: how many households the likes of Barker could our planet actually sustain before collapsing? And how much poverty is necessary—I mean that: how much poverty is required in the mathematical equation—to allow so much wealth to accumulate in a single family? Answers to those questions would invite tourists to measure the very real cost that the wealth of a few extracts from the rest of us. And to acknowledge the peril that such wealth poses to the planet. They would give us pause before giving ourselves over to the oohs and ahhs that seem intended to keep us from raising rabble or occupying Wall Street. In truth, the Barker Mansion offers a glimpse at a life that is only noble, luxurious, and enviable—if you set aside the virtue of economic justice, ecological wisdom, and true human compassion.
At some point soon—like a couple decades ago—we need to make peace with the limits of our planet. And not as limits we begrudgingly accept but as the framework within which we cheerfully explore abundance—and justice—for everyone. And excessive wealth is not part of that equation. I have nothing personal against John H. Barker, but his level of wealth is simply not worth our awe any more. It has always been unjust, and today it is killing the planet, the poor, and our own future.
In fact, I’d like to see more tourist sites that lift up the persons whose lives stretched the measure of generosity and cooperation and sustainability. Sites that would inspire us with a glimpse of what is not only possible but necessary if the love we profess for our grandchildren is to be anything more than empty platitudes.
Finally, the melancholy that chased me through the mansion needs a purpose. It’s a beginning to feel unsettled, to become restless in the face of opulence. But beyond the melancholy I resolve to be the person willing to pose (politely but persistently) the uncomfortable questions that are lacking on my next tour. And I resolve to do my best to fashion a life that models for others the pursuit of a wealth that is measured by simplicity, sustainability, conviviality, hospitality, and justice. My home probably won’t wind up as a tourist site any time soon, but it might become a small beacon of hope in a world where melancholy in the face of wealth is at least a beginning place.
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more athttp://www.tothetune.com.