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The rich didn't always need US$238-million penthouses

Just days after buying one of the most expensive residential properties in London, hedge fund manager Ken Griffin set a US record with the US$238 million penthouse at 220 Central Park South. However, in the years after World War II and for much of the mid-20th century, the consumption habits of the rich were guided by more modest ambitions

LAST week, as the world was made aware, Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin bought the most expensive home ever sold in the United States, a US$238 million, 24,000-square-foot penthouse on Central Park South in New York City.

What do you do with 24,000 square feet? You could hoard, presumably, and never require the advice of Marie Kondo, because who would ever notice that you hold on to all your old adapters and ping-pong balls? Each one of them could have its own guest wing.

The current taste for huge residential real estate and the fortunes that underwrite it have brought obvious comparisons to the Gilded Age for some time now. You can find some contemporary version of early 20th-century Newport, Rhode Island, in many places. Under construction for 15 years, a house modelled after Versailles in Windermere, Florida, for instance, will be the largest in the country when it is finished, with 11 kitchens, five swimming pools and a 30-car garage.

It is easy to imagine that outsize American wealth always sought to express itself in immense square footage, but there was a protracted period in which aesthetics took a different course.

In the years after World War II and for much of the mid-20th century, the consumption habits of the rich were guided by more modest ambitions. This happened to be a time when top marginal tax rates were high, at various points much higher than what Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and many on the left are proposing now. Between 1945 and 1980, those rates never fell below 70 per cent and for many years they exceeded 80 per cent.

As it happens, you can see the cultural transition from opulence to discretion unfold in the history of a single Fifth Avenue apartment: the 54-room penthouse triplex built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1925 (when, for what it's worth, the top marginal tax rate was 25 per cent).

Ms Post - who was already building the 126-room Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach - sold the mansion she had been living in to make room for the apartment building that would take its place, but she saw no point in sacrificing any of the luxuries and the accommodations to which she had been accustomed.

However, it no longer exists. After Ms Post's lease expired in 1941 - she paid US$75,000 a month in rent - the apartment sat vacant for a decade. The building was then converted to a co-op in the early 1950s, and the Post apartment was divided into six units.

By this time, the wealthiest New Yorkers were not seeking apartments the size of sports arenas, and at any rate, there would have been little to meet the demand if they did.

Brooke Astor lived, until her death, in an apartment on Park Avenue that was not in excess of 5,000 square feet. In the 1970s, David and Peggy Rockefeller quietly redecorated their East 65th Street town house. At 10,000 square feet, it was not tiny, but it was the couple's primary residence and the house in which they raised their six children.

Mr Griffin, who has houses and apartments in Chicago, Miami and London, plans to use his place in New York only occasionally.

There was a prevailing sense that too much was distasteful. A generation had just emerged from the suffering of the Depression and World War II. "You just didn't see the kind of enormity you see now," Frederick Warburg Peters, a long-standing broker of Upper East Side co-ops and the chief executive of Warburg realty, said. "It was considered un-American."

These values were reflected in the city's architecture during the postwar years, when the concern was with the conservation of space - with low ceilings and narrow corridors and the elimination of rooms no one would ever use.

It is also true that the 1950s and '60s did not give rise to the creation of massive fortunes. The ethos of conformity that persisted for much of that time arguably suppressed the will to take the kind of risks on which large sums of money are accumulated. Big money was mostly old money, and old money still subscribed to certain virtues.

In 1949, John Hay Whitney, known as Jock, heir to the vast Whitney fortune and later the publisher of The New York Herald Tribune, built a Modernist beach house on Fishers Island, New York, a patrician summer colony off the coast of Connecticut. He had other houses that had been passed down to him, but this one was small by today's standards - it had five bedrooms and a carport for two cars. A Sports Illustrated article on Fishers Island that ran in 1965 and mentioned the house alluded to a single excess: an in-ground sprinkler.

What did people do with all their money? They bought horses and art and raised cattle; they gave money away, in part, to relieve tax burdens. In 1931 there were 250 foundations in the country; by the mid-1950s there were thousands.

Certainly, some of them, as sociologist C. Wright Mills argued in his indispensable book, The Power Elite, existed as a dubious means of self-dealing. Many operated with a greater deal of sincerity. In 1946, Whitney created his own foundation to which he contributed US$1 million a year, far from an inconsiderable sum as he died, in 1982, with US$200 million.

The foundation had a singular focus, to help "those groups that experience racial, gender or economic discrimination". NYTIMES