Nail Houses—A Selection of Obstinate Holdouts and Buildings Which Outlived Their Neighbourhoods
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Sometimes in towns and cities, and sometimes even in a rural setting, one may come across a building which appears anachronistic - a building out of keeping with its local environment. Such buildings are unfortunately most often the result of planning gone mad. Architectural disasters such as a huge and ugly factory, inappropriately built in a neighbourhood of houses, or perhaps a skyscraper in a historic city next to a medieval church. These are usually down to poor judgement by a committee, and a complete disregard for culture and aesthetics.
But the existence of some of these buildings was never directly intended by any official planning bodies. Some were the personal work of individuals and they were designed just to annoy the person who lives next door or across the street. These are known as 'spite houses' and they are the subject of a companion piece to this one.
Others however, were neither designed badly by a committee, nor built maliciously by an individual. Some were never intended to be spiteful, and had indeed existed in perfect harmony with their environment for years. But then the environment changed. Other houses or factories or warehouses were demolished, perhaps to make way for new developments. One by one the buildings went. Until eventually just one structure remained - a building whose owner obstinately clings on, refusing to let go, either because they love their cherished home, or because they want to 'hold out' for some increased compensation. Properties like this in America are therefore sometimes called 'holdouts'. Alternatively, because they seem 'nailed down' whilst all around them has been blown away, they are sometimes called 'nail houses'.
This article is a light hearted look at ten of the world's most famous nail houses.
1) The Holdout Squeezed by Two Apartment Blocks
At first glance this narrow five storey house resembles a so-called 'spite house'. But whereas the term 'spite houses' would refer to a building which is deliberately built between two existing properties just to really annoy their owners, this house predates the surrounding buildings, and it wasn't built out of animosity. It is just a relic from a bygone age.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, West Avenue, Manhattan was an area of increasing property prices and the location of a number of attractive town houses owned by well-to-do Americans. One of these blocks of houses consisted of five properties depicted in the drawing here, and one of the owners at the turn of the century was Ferdinand Huntting Cook and his wife Mary. They had lived here at No 249 for many years before changes began to take place, first for the Cook family and then for the neighbourhood. Ferdinand unfortunately died following an accident whilst out one windy night in 1913, and around the same time, the couple's five maturing children went off to college, leaving Mary Cook alone in the house. In the neighbourhood, the building of modern apartment blocks was underway, and removal of the existing town houses was necessary to make way for these. By the year 1916, the houses in Mrs Cook's block to the north had all been demolished, and a towering new block constructed. The residents had sold up, and no doubt the developers had fully expected Mrs Cook to do the same. But she didn't. She stayed. Then in 1924, the same thing happened to the houses on the other side of Mrs Cook. But Mrs Cook again remained obstinately opposed to selling up, and there were no legal grounds for removing her. So they just went ahead and built a second apartment block on the other side of her anyway!
Mary Cook died in 1932. Soon after, the little building had a minor place in the history of art when the Uptown Art Gallery was based here, and several up and coming artists exhibited their early works here, including Mark Rothko. Then in 1941, No 249 was itself converted into apartments. Nonetheless, the narrow townhouse which Mary had fought to keep her own, still stands today as a monument to her tenacity and determination.
2) The Seattle Farmhouse Surrounded by the 21st Century
This next holdout seems even more out of place because the buildings which have grown up around it are strikingly modern, shiny buildings. There cannot be many more incongruous architectural juxtapositions than this - a little turn of the 20th century farmhouse nestled in the midst of a flashy 21st century development.
Edith Macefield's home was the last surviving relic of the old neighbourhood in Ballard, Seattle. In recent years a variety of commercial outlets opened up around it, but in 2006 there was still theoretical room for at least two more - a boutique supermarket and a health club. Trouble was, Ms Macefield's house stood in the way. And Ms Macefield was in no mood to sell. So the offers flooded in from the desperate developers - initially $750,000, but gradually escalated up to a package of $1 million compensation, plus a new home and paid nursing care for the elderly lady. Still she stubbornly refused. Perhaps that was not too surprising, when one learns of her background - this resiliently independent lady had first moved into her cottage-like home as long ago as the 1950s, and had lived there as the sole occupant ever since her mother's death. By all accounts she was also quite an eccentric character happy to tell colourful stories about her past - stories which may or may not have been entirely factual, including one about being a World War Two allied spy and a concentration camp internee!
At about the time of the $1 million offer, Ms Macefield suffered a fall and broke some ribs, somewhat incapacitating her. One person who had been entrigued by her stories and her personality, was Barry Martin, who had recently moved in close by. Following her accident he became her most supportive friend, helping her out, taking her to the doctors, fetching groceries for her, even cooking for her on occasion. In 2008, Edith Macewell died of cancer, aged 86. And when her will was read, it was revealed with some irony that the main beneficiary to whom she left the house was Barry Martin. Ironic, because Martin was none other than the superintendent of the construction company which had for so long been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Edith to sell up and move away!
Some unsurprisingly suggested that maybe Barry Martin's friendship had been opportunistic, but the consensus seems to be that it was genuine and his behaviour had been altruistic. Whatever the truth of this, it was he that benefited, but not his construction company who never did get their hands on the property. In 2009 the house received national publicity when the Disney corporation tied a huge bunch of balloons to it to promote their animated film 'Up' which told the story of an elderly widower's house surrounded by modern developments. That same year, Barry Martin put the house up for sale. Since then, a range of options have been proposed, but none have really come to fruition, and currently Edith Macefield's house is boarded up, its future uncertain.
3) Austin Sprigg's House - The Holdout Which Held Out Too Long
And finally from America, a note of caution. It's all very well holding out for as much compensation as you can get, but you've got to know when you've pushed it too far! On Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C there stood a house belonging to Austin L.Spriggs. In 1980 when he bought it in a rundown location, the house cost $135,000. But in 2003 a bright new Convention Centre opened nearby and the district began to look up. And Spriggs's was a house perfectly positioned to make money, because developers were buying up real estate here, hoping to erect more profitable buildings.
Development bids soon flooded in, but Austin refused to sell, speculating that he could take advantage of the situation. He should have known what he was doing, because he was the owner of a small architecture firm himself. One bid of $1.5 million was rejected, with an extravagant demand by Austin for five to ten times that amount, plus a request to be employed on the development. That didn't happen. And Jackson Prentice, a broker with a firm which offered a massive $2.75 million, told him that their evaluation could only fall away once other buildings started going up around him. 'You won't see this price again' he warned. Austin however, believed things could only get even better. They didn't. Repeatedly he refused to sell, so in the end the developers went ahead and gauged a deep foundation trench round three sides of his house, and built anyway. And once the new offices and apartment blocks were in place, the area of the Sprigg's house - though still desirable - was just not substantial enough to be worth so much.
Austin Spriggs had missed his chance. He later thought about opening a pizzeria in the premises, but that never happened. And renovation plans foundered when he apparently defaulted on a $1.3 million loan. Eventually, the bank threatened a foreclosure auction, but interest - reflected in the offers received - had substantially reduced. Austin himself put the house up for $1.5 million - the price he'd once been offered. But the sale fell through. Eventually in 2011, it went for less than $800,000.
Austin Spriggs has since moved away, and his house has been demolished. Quite how he feels now is unclear, as apparently he politely declines to discuss the affair. It is easy to see this man as greedy and money-grabbing, justly receiving his come-uppance when his bargaining for more money fell through. But who in this world doesn't want what they can get? He had owned his house since the 1980s and had no desire to leave. And if he was going to leave, then as he saw it the multi-millionaire developers would have to dig deep in their pockets to secure his family's future. Nonetheless Austin Sprigg's house is a salutary lesson for all who hold out wishing for ever greater levels of compensation.
4) Spiegelhalter's Jewellers
Take a look at the old black and white photo above, and if you can see it clearly, read the names across the facade - 'Wickhams', 'Wickhams' and 'Wickhams'. But wait, that's not quite right. What it actually says (reading from left to right) is 'Wickhams', 'Wickhams', 'Spiegelhalter Bros Ltd', 'Wickhams'. That small building centre right with the rather indistinct name plate is Spiegelhalter's Clockmaker and Jewellers. The whole of the rest of the edifice in the Mile End Road in Whitechapel, in London is Wickhams Department Store. The photo was taken in 1956.
In the 19th century the Wickhams were a family of drapers (clothing retailers) selling their wares at three outlets close together on the odd-numbered side of the Mile End Road at Nos 69, 71 and 73. A clockmaker and jewellery shop owned by the Spiegelhalter family, stood next door at No 75. But the Wickhams were ambitious to expand their business and in the 1890s they acquired the Spiegelhalter premises. It was amicable, the smaller company agreeing to move a little further along the road to No 81.
Fast forward another 35 years, and the Wickhams had further expanded their business to include Nos 77 and 79 and had also acquired premises on the other side of No 81. They wanted to develop a really prestigious department store, and to that end they designed an impressive facade with Roman-style colonnades and even an extravagant central clock tower. All they needed was No 81. But this time the Spiegelhalters were unwilling to move, whatever sum they were offered. The Wickhams had gone too far to pull back, so the end result was a building design in two parts, with an off-centre tower, and that little jewellery shop in the middle.
What subsequently became of the department store and the jewellery shop? Wickhams sadly went the way of most independent department stores in the UK as they eventually lost out to chain stores and multinationals. Today very few survive. Tough competition led to Wickhams closing its doors in the 1960s. Remarkably, little Spiegelhalter outlived it, before finally shutting up shop in 1982. The whole edifice of both stores still exists today, but although Wickhams store is now occupied by a supermarket, a restaurant and a sports shop, the old jewellery shop sadly is currently empty and neglected. There have been plans to demolish it so as to create an atrium or open space, but petitions to preserve the heritage of this little piece of local history have ensured that at least the frontage will remain intact in the future as an archway to the atrium.
5) Narita - The Farm in the Middle of an Airport Runway
The next story is astonishing - a tussle between individual rights and the common good, and a farm in the middle of a major airport, preventing a runway from being extended to international standard length. Back in 1966, the Government of Japan announced plans to build an airport at Narita, close to Tokyo. But sadly, airport building always causes disruption and controversy and always takes up a whole lot of land, and Narita was no exception. The government planned to buy up more than 1000 hectares from 1,200 landowners in the neighbourhood. Protests were numerous, including not only local people but also student and left-wing activists, some of whom unfortunately took to violent action to disrupt the plans. Clashes in 1971 led to riots and the deaths of several people, including 3 policemen.
Those activists caused further trouble over the years, but eventually they would lose interest and drift away. Not so, the local landowners, who continued their opposition through legal means. And they did succeed in holding up development. So in 1978 when the airport finally opened, there was just one runway instead of the three which were originally planned. The government continued to pressurise locals to sell up, offering increased levels of compensation, and slowly but surely the airport facilities were extended as one by one the landowners moved out.
But some would never sell. A farm remained on land bordered by one of the airport taxiways, and a pickle factory also remained in the district. And when a second runway was completed in 2002, its length was only 2,180m instead of the previously intended 2,500m. The reason? One local man owned a farm lying directly in the way of its proposed southern extension. In 2005 the airport authority finally announced that it had given up trying to remove seven farmers from their plots of land.
It's easy to side with the farmers, but one should also consider the government case too. By 2000 this airport was already handling more than 50% of international passenger transport and 60% of freight transport. The second runway, was intended to increase departures and arrivals from 135,000 to 200,000 each year. But the shortened strip meant that the runway could not take really big airliners, and it also reduced fuel carrying capacity, restricting the take offs to short haul flights only. In 2009 that runway was finally extended, though in a less favoured northerly direction. And today the farm is still there, growing organic vegetables. And so are other private properties. Residents still enter via a tunnel under one of the taxiways, seemingly prepared to put up forever with deafening sounds of aircraft takeoffs and landings, and the constant and inevitable police and security patrols.
A Brief Interlude to Explain American Holdouts and Chinese Nail Houses - Similarities and Differences in their Culture and Intent
So far we have looked at holdouts in Japan, the UK and America. But in truth I couldn't find more than one well publicised example in Japan and one in the UK. By contrast there are dozens in America. America seems to inspire these acts of defiance, and the reasons seem clear. The nation's economic prosperity and rapid commercial development together with lucrative inducements to anyone who stands in the way, to get out of the way, plus the uniquely American psyche of pioneering independence, all help to explain this phenomenon. They are a testament to the belief in America as a land of opportunity and free enterprise, and above all, the land of a citizen's right to defend their own home - their own territory.
So it is ironic that if there is one country in the world which surpasses the USA when it comes to defiant householders, it is that supposed antithesis of capitalism and property rights - communist China. Although the background is slightly different, the basis of the phenomenon is the same - either to hang on to one's home for sentimental reasons, or to hold out for compensation. In China such places are called 'nail houses', and today they have become so common, they are hardly even newsworthy. Why China? The reason is actually a favourable comment on change in China. Once upon a time, all private ownership rights were effectively denied, and so what the authorities wanted, they got. If they wanted to bulldoze a person's home, they just went ahead and did it. More enlightened times in the 1990s did lead to markets free from direct government control, though these were not immediately beneficial to the people, as unscrupulous developers and corrupt local officials who earmarked land for new building projects would bully homeowners into accepting very low levels of compensation. However, this free enterprise did eventually lead to the emergence of strong private ownership rights, and the increasing realisation of home owners that holding on to their houses for as long as possible could be a profitable course of action. The result was that this potent sign of resistance to autocratic authority became commonplace.
It must be said that Chinese nail houses are more vulnerable than their American counterparts. The buildings tend to be more frail, and corruption and bullying is still rife. China has been in a hurry in recent years to develop its economy, so the pressure on the nail house owners to move out is intense. The end result of this is that Chinese nail houses tend not to survive so long as American holdouts, and yet the starkness of these buildings amidst the construction work which goes on around them, is even more striking, as we shall see in the next five examples from China.
6) Wenling - The House that Created a Roundabout
In the photo above, there is a house which looks for all the world as though it's standing in the middle of a road. It looks that way because that's exactly where it is. It was taken in 2012 in the city of Wenling in Zhejiang Province, when the house was the last one standing as the neighbourhood was cleared to make way for a railway station and a new road to the station - part of a redevelopment plan. The elderly couple who owned the house - duck farmer Luo Baogen and his wife - had first been approached 11 years earlier in 2001. At that time they refused to sell up to local government property developers, because the house had cost them considerably more to build than the compensation offered.
Construction had gone ahead anyway, all the time with the couple under pressure to leave their home. The train station was built and then the two lane highway. Still the house remained, so the road builders did what might have seemed logical at the time - they just built the road around the house as the elderly couple defiantly stood their ground! In these days of social media - even in China - it was perhaps inevitable that the story became public knowledge, not just locally, but around the world. Photos of the house went viral on the Internet in November 2012, and the building became a rallying point for all who wished to protest about householders being offered unfair compensation.
Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, this monument to obstinacy is no more, having been demolished in December 2012 after Mr Luo finally gave in and reached financial settlement with the developers. He accepted an offer of about 260,000 yuan ($41,000) - not great, but better than had originally been put on the table. In the end, it was all the media attention that did it - reputedly Mr Luo just grew tired of all the hassle of being in the public eye.
7) Nanning - The Shack in the Middle of a Housing Estate
After a house in the middle of a road, how about a shack in the middle of a road in the middle of a housing estate? Who would live in a house like this? The southern Chinese city of Nanning stands where once there was a village which was relocated with its inhabitants in the late 1990s, to make way for a new development. Just one 'building' stayed behind - 'building' in inverted commas, because it scarcely qualified as anything so grandiose. But what must have been the least prepossessing accommodation in the developing city now took centre stage. As a wide range of new and substantial erections sprang up around it, the ramshackle shack stayed firmly put. People began moving into apartment blocks which lined the Yaning road, but the new residents had a few little inconveniences to deal with - the road couldn't be fully surfaced, and anyone who chose to drive along it, had to go around the shack in the middle! And yet bizarrely, the owner of the shack hadn't even lived in it for most of the past decade, such was its lack of facilities and state of disrepair!
Why had this been allowed to happen? The proper eviction notices hadn't been served, and it may be that the owner was unsure of his compensation rights. He refused to sign a demolition agreement and Chinese Law now says that it is illegal to demolish a house without agreement. However, it was a state of affairs which couldn't really be allowed to continue indefinitely, and indeed shortly after these photos were published in April 2015, the shack was no more, and the road was resurfaced. How exactly that happened and whether any compensation was finally paid out to the anonymous owner, is not known.
8) Chongqing - The House on a Mound in a Building Site
In Chongqing, in southwest China in 2004, plans were underway to build a new six story shopping mall. But the ambitious plan required 281 families to move out of the locality first. 280 of them agreed to the developer's terms - one refused. In the face of overwhelming pressure, Yang Wu and his wife Wu Ping had decided to stay exactly where they were.
That however, was never going to stop the development. As can be seen in the photo above, everything - literally everything - was excavated from around and even below their home. Even the soil went, leaving Yang Wu's house perched precariously on a mound of earth over the 10-17m deep construction site. Yang and his wife held out for two years in the little house which had been in the family for three generations, (although to be fair, the original wooden structure had been rebuilt in 1993) and which for a while had doubled up as a general store and a small cafe. But then water and power was cut off, and the couple felt they had to leave.
In March 2007, with the house empty but still owned by Yang, a judicial deadline was laid down for the couple to give up the fight. They were up against the might of both the developers and the courts. But on 21st March, Yang climbed back up the mound - for that was now the only way to get in - and re-entered his home. Wu Ping brought him food and water and blankets, and tied them to a rope for Yang to haul up. The couple also fought back against authority with a nice line in public relations. First Yang showed his patriotism by raising a Chinese flag over the house, and then Wu conducted press conferences for the media. Some locals were sympathetic to the couple, and on Chinese social media websites, up to 85% showed support. At one point the couple rejected a compensation offer of about 3.5 million yuan ($453,000).
Eventually their resistance paid off with a new offer of compensation, including a new apartment, which they just couldn't refuse. So it was that Yang Wu and Wu Ping left their house for the last time on the afternoon of 2nd April 2007. And that evening, a bulldozer demolished the Chongqing nail house.
9) Shenzhen - The Last One Standing
This is the story of a six floor apartment block in the city of Shenzhen - a modestly tall building which stood in the way of a much taller build. Chinese cities have become cities of skyscrapers, and one of the tallest was planned for Shenzhen.
The 439m (1440 ft) 88 storey Kingkey Finance Tower was the building proposed, but inevitably the new construction would mean major upheavals on the ground, and the obliteration of properties already at the site. Compensation was offered, and some 389 home owners accepted. However, another home owner held out longer. Inspired by the story of the Chongqing couple, who had just recently attracted much publicity, Choi Chu Cheung and his wife Zhang Lian-hao asked for what they regarded as a reasonable sum - not the 5 million yuen which was on offer in April 2007, but something more like 14 million yuen, and an expanse of land of similar size to that they currently occupied.
The stage was set for a battle royale. It was argued by the developers that the ground itself had been state-owned since changing from village rural use long ago, so Choi had no basis for a claim on the land. Then the bullying began. Water and electricity were cut off, and windows were smashed, They faced harassment and extortion, and received advice from one official to be careful - nail house owners 'had a habit of dying in car crashes'. Whether that was an empty threat or a piece of sound advice, they began to lock their door from 6.00 pm each evening.
But Choi and his wife were acting in quite an astute way. Choi knew full well the value of the Kingkey Group who were investing 3 billion yuan in their construction project. What's more, Choi had worked much of his life in Hong Kong with a Hong Kong ID, which by the historical background to that autonomous territory may have given him some protected status. And as the owner of an under seige nail house, he could no longer commute to work, so he wanted compensation for lost earnings too. Choi appealed to the government to arbitrate, and at about the same time the government's Property Rights Law was being enacted, giving further rights to home owners. The apartment block could not be demolished without agreement from the last of the residents - Mr Choi himself. Settlement was eventually reached for a sum believed to have be in excess of 12 million yuan ($1.9 million). Choi, who had moved in ten years previously at a cost of 1 million yuan, declared:
'I will use the money to buy four apartments. One for me, two for my children and one to rent out.'
A happy ending for Mr Choi and Mrs Zhang. And it seems, for their children.
10) The Taiyuan Tombstone!
This whole article has been all about properties which have either outlived their natural lives or their perceived usefuleness to the local community. Where once they had been a part of the community, now they seemed to be out of place - a holdout relic of a bygone age and in some cases, bygone lives. So it is fitting to end with the ultimate holdout to a bygone life - a tombstone.
It may seem a bit morbid, but land is at a premium and even the dead cannot always rest in the way of commercial progress - unless they have someone alive to defend them of course! The picture above was taken in December 2012, when Chinese construction workers began building around a massive mound of earth. It's actually a 10m high 'nail grave' at a site in Taiyuan, in China's northern Shanxi province.
New residential accommodation was being planned for the locality. As is so often the case, something of value to someone stood in the way, though this time it wasn't houses. It was this small grave yard. And whilst agreement was reached to remove some of the tombs, the surviving members of one interred family decided to hold out against the developers - a by now familiar tale to readers of this article! Unsurprisingly the relatives of Chang Jinzhu who had lain here since 2004, wanted compensation before they would allow their loved one to be moved to a new site. Agreement could not be reached, so preparation for the new building took place anyway with excavations reminiscent of those which surrounded the Chongqing nail house. As in Chongqing, a deep pit was dug for the foundations - a 10m pit - and all that remained of the graveyard was a huge mound of earth and a solitary gravestone perched on top! 7 months passed as construction work continued around the tombs.
Eventually agreement was reached, though unfortunately English language reports vary massively on the amount of compensation offered - clearly something had been lost in translation! A platform, a bridge and scaffolding were erected around the top of the mound to enable work on exhumation to proceed, and in December 2012, family members and friends removed four coffins from the site.
Final Thoughts by the Author
Nail houses and holdouts are a phenomenon which has increased in recent decades, and that perhaps is a good sign. It is easy to characterise these buildings as the result of the brave little guy standing up to big multi-nationals, greedy corporate interests and aggressive governments. It's easy to side with the owners of the holdouts. And certainly it is true that sometimes the big guys try to bully, coerce and pressurise the owners to sell up and go away. That is human nature when in some cases, vast sums of money are at stake. But on the other hand, should individuals really stand in the way of progress which may benefit the whole community?
So why do I say nail houses are a good sign? Bear in mind that in past times when no individual rights existed, there would have been no chance of standing alone against authority. And even in more recent decades in countries such as China, there could have been no such concept as a nail house. The government would just have rode roughshod over any opposition, employing violence as and when required. Today there are civil rights and it is quite pleasing to see that small landowners feel emboldened enough to stand up for those rights even against the very mightiest of authorities.
So whatever the future of the nail house, and despite the negative elements of human behaviour displayed here, whether it be the greediness of big business or the sheer cussed obstinacy of individuals, it is gratifying to see such David and Goliath battles in nations like America, Britain, Japan and China, and it is good to see that on occasion, David still wins.
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