John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
One way to get back at the neighbors? Block their light and views.
About a century ago, a Bay Area man named Charles Froling was just learning that he wouldn't be able to build his dream house. An inheritance had gifted him a sizable chunk of land, but municipal elders in the City of Alameda had decided to appropriate most of it to extend a street. So Froling sadly rolled up his blueprints and murmured, "Ah well, that's life."
No, of course he didn't do that. Having a constitution made from equal parts righteous indignation and pickle juice, the frustrated property owner took what little land he had left and erected a stilted, utterly ridiculous abode. The house measured 54 feet long but only 10 feet wide, as if a tornado had blown away two-thirds of the original structure. Today, the minihabitat enjoys moderate local fame and amazingly, with a property value of about $350,000, is lived in.
The shrunken wonder in Alameda is a bizarre sight, but it's not quite unique: There are a handful of so-called "spite houses" enlivening the streets of America. Thrown up by cranks and malcontents, these structures take many forms but share a common function: to punish the neighbors by blocking their view, blacking out their sunlight, or making their life a little more hellish in some other nefarious way. Many were constructed in the days when building codes were lax, and so their underlying contempt and animosity has been grandfathered into the modern landscape.
Having recently stumbled upon the Alameda property, I became curious about this pestiferous boil on the backside of American architecture. Below, find a few of the more eminent spite houses from history, beginning with Boston's notorious "Skinny House":
This anorexic abode, slipped between normal apartments like a paperclip stuck in a floor crack, is said to exist due to a rancorous family feud. According to its somewhat murky history, there were once two brothers, one who went to fight in the Civil War and the other who stayed in Boston. When the veteran returned home, he found that his brother had built over most of the land they'd inherited. Rather than walk away beaten, the vet constructed this surreal house so his brother, when looking out the window, got a face full of wall.
The widest this house gets is 10.4 feet and the narrowest is 6.2 feet, meaning a similarly spiteful roommate could block off an entire room by stretching out his arms. It was recently occupied by (go figure) an architect and his family, who told the Boston Globe, "We had a party of 10 one New Year's Eve, and when one person has to go to the bathroom, everyone has to move."
It is hard to find New York's Richardson Spite House in this photo of Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street, because it looks like a facade on the building at left that almost, but not quite, rises to roof level. Here's the story behind this fantastic achievement in grudge-settling: In the late 1800s, a clothier wished to erect apartments on a parcel extending almost all the way to Lexington Avenue. But blocking his chances of abutting the avenue was a narrow strip of land, 104 feet long but only 5 feet wide, owned by reputed miser Joseph Richardson.
The men haggled but couldn't agree on Richardson's asking price of $5,000, so the clothier built his apartments anyway, leaving the narrow strip untouched. Richardson responded by drafting plans for a 5-foot-wide tenement house that would brick up all of the neighboring apartments' windows. "Not only will I build the houses, but I will live in one of them and I shall rent to other tenants as well," he's reputed to have said, presumably chuckling and sipping from a boiling glass of bile. "Everybody is not fat and there will be room enough for people who are not circus or museum folk."
Richardson did indeed build this infuriating but habitable barrier, complete with miniature furniture such as dining tables that couldn't exceed 18 inches in width. His hopes that people would navigate its angular interior without problems didn't exactly bear out. One reporter who came to interview Richardson became lodged in a stairwell; he broke free only after removing his clothes and receiving helpful pushes and shoves from tenants. The Richardson Spite House no longer exists, having been bought and wrecked to make more apartments in 1915.
This envelope of a Seattle dwelling at left above, what some might call a stand-alone hallway, actually
sold for an unknown amount in 2013 sold for $375,000 this May (this news report saying 2013 was premature). The problem with the Montlake Spite House is not its 860 square feet, which would make for a decent studio in New York. It's how those feet are proportioned, with 15-foot-wide walls at one end cramping down to 55 inches at the other, narrower than a typical prison cell. "The one-bedroom house at 2022 24th Ave. E. in Montlake was built in 1925 by someone trying to get back at a neighbor for making an insultingly low offer for the tiny slice of land on which it sits," writes the Seattle Times. "It worked; the house blocked the neighbors' open space and they moved."
Credit John Hollensbury for making a (barely) livable dwelling when he could've just built a fence. As the owner of a house in what's now Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, he was irritated by the foot-and-horse traffic that streamed through an adjacent alley. So in 1830, he added a roof over the alley and poof! a spite house was born.
The dwarfish dwelling, measuring 7 feet wide and 25 deep, is occasionally stayed in by a couple who seem quite pleased with it. "I thought having something unique and historic would be fun," one told The New York Times. And even more crucially, "it was near my office at the time." The house's diminutive size means its electric bills average out to a sweet $30 per month, and its runty, underdog bearing has attracted a good amount of local pride. As the same owner told the Times, "It's on napkins and cards that show Old Town scenes. It's always on the Christmas tour."