Spite Houses—A Selection of Maliciously Eccentric or Delightfully Spiteful Buildings
Most buildings in this world serve an obvious function for the occupants; they are a place to live or work. And they will be designed, constructed or purchased with this function in mind. The owners will take into account the practicalities of location and price, or the aesthetics of the decor. But there are a select few buildings in the world built with quite different priorities and motivations in mind - to annoy and to obstruct, to be bloody-minded, and to spite someone.
They are called 'spite houses', and the spite house is - depending upon your point of view - an example of colourful eccentricity at work, or a really sorry indication of the lengths that some awkward people will go to in order to make other peoples' lives a total misery. Some may exist as a point of principle designed to protest against something very nasty or objectionable in the neighbourhood. But others are quite clearly just one individual's vindictive way of getting their own back at someone who's seriously p****d them off.
This article is a light-hearted look at ten of the most famous spite houses in the world. The intentions behind them are varied, but all - at least in the opinion of the intended victim - are built from pure spite. Many hit the headlines at the time of construction, and some have since gone on to become tourist attractions in their own right.
Oh, and if there's a serious message to be heeded from these examples, it's this; seriously, if you find yourself living next to a seriously spiteful neighbour, DON'T MESS WITH THEM! Make friends with them instead - You know it makes sense!
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops.
1) The Boston Skinny House
The first four examples here are all spite houses built as the result of a personal feud between two people. We'll start with one of the most famous of all, which is now a noted attraction in the City of Boston, Massachusettes - it's the grey building in the photo above. The history is not entirely clear, but it came about as the result of one person being really very cross with another person. The most widely believed story is that the 'Skinny House' had its origins during the American Civil War. A soldier - one of two brothers - was away at war when his father died leaving a plot of land to them on this street in Boston. On his return from the war, the soldier found that his rather selfish stay-at-home brother had built a large house for himself on most of the land, leaving just a narrow strip for air and light - too narrow, one would have thought - to build anything on. But the soldier went ahead anyway and in 1874 built this wooden spite house with the sole purpose of blocking out some sunlight and ruining the view through the side windows. In other words, to annoy his brother. Spite at its most damaging, because it meant the soldier was putting himself in an unpleasant living space just to ensure his brother's living space was also unpleasant. The maximum width of the house is 3.2 m (10 ft) at the front, but even narrower at the back, and it holds the record of Boston's skinniest house. The house still stands opposite the old Copp's Hill Burying Ground which somehow adds to its quaint and historic appeal.
2) The Virginia City Spite House
Look at the photo above. It seems for all the world as though two houses are sharing one wall. In other words, a semi-detached house (I believe the American term is duplex). Such houses are very common throughout the world. But look very closely at this one and you will see that the two properties are not joined. There is a thin sliver of light between them. In fact a gap of less than 30 cm (12 in) - not even enough space to walk through. Why? Because the two houses were never intended to be built this close together, and the only reason they are, is the result of pure spite.
In the 1950s there were apparently two local miners in Virginia City Nevada who had one big grudge between them. Basically, they hated each other. So when one of them built an attractive house (the white one) on a spacious plot with trees around and a beautiful backdrop of hills and countryside, he probably hoped to enjoy the view and the local environment. But that didn't happen because the second miner decided to ruin it all by buying the neighbouring plot and transporting his already built red house so that it nestled as close as possible to it. All windows on that side of the white house were rendered useless, sunlight was kept out, and the view was spoiled. Of course the owner of the red house also suffered by the close proximity of his hated neighbour's house but so what? - the nature of spite is such that sometimes it seems one has to suffer just in order to make your enemy suffer.
3) The Alameda Spite House
Now this one's really spiteful. Look at the large building on the right with the pinkish facade. And see the balcony through the tree top with the windows above? Probably a nice view from that balcony and those windows. But what of the windows round the corner? The ones facing - well - scarcely 1 m (3 ft) from the wall of another building? Not such a good view out of those windows, and that was exactly the intention of the man who built the smaller grey house on the side of the street.
The story goes that early in the 20th century, Charles Froling had planned to build a home for himself on a spacious plot of inherited land in Alameda, California. But unfortunately, the city and a neighbouring resident had other ideas. The neighbour is believed to have objected to his plans and the city took most of the land away from Charles in order to build a road. He only had a tiny sliver of land left. Undaunted, he went ahead and built anyway right up close to the edge of the street. The resulting edifice measures 16 m (54 ft) long, 6 m (20 ft) high, but just 3 m (10 ft) deep. More to the point he managed to intentionally block off his awkward neighbour's view. The house still stands and is still occupied today.
4) Thomas McCobb's Mansion
Spite houses don't have to be small, and they don't have to be so close to the neighbour there isn't room to squeeze past. After a long time away at sea, Thomas McCobb returned home to Phippsburg, Maine in 1806, only to find that his mother and step brother Mark had colluded in the inheritance of the stately family home, a house so impressive it was known as the the 'Mansion In The Wilderness'. McCobb had lost out big time and the sight of his step brother living in such a place must have been galling.
McCobb moved on - though not very far. He bought a plot of land right across the street and elevated up from the level of the old family house, and resolved to build his own mansion even more sumptuous than the old estate. The finished house was the supremely elegant mansion topped with a balustraded roof and octagonal turret, to be seen in the photo above. This opulent mansion overlooked and overshadowed the home of his step brother for the rest of his life - exactly the intention of Thomas!
In more recent times, a man called Donald Dodge bought the house and transported it to a new location 85 miles south in Rockport, Maine. Today the house still stands, though no longer of course in direct opposition to the old family estate of Thomas McCobb. It is, however, still affectionately known as the McCobb Spite House.
5) The Hollensbury Spite House
The next three spite houses owe their existence to a slightly different motivation. Instead of being built just to annoy a neighbour or relative, they were built out of frustration or antagonism with a community or with officialdom, and specifically with the layout of the roads and buildings in their neighbourhood. The first of these is the Hollensbury Spite House depicted in the photo above.
Who would live in a house like this one? Not the spacious white one on the left, nor the attractive terracotta red design on the right, but that scrawny blue thing in the middle. Actually, the same person - John Hollensbury - owned at least two, and maybe all three. In the year 1830 there was a narrow alley between the white and red properties on Queens Street in Alexandria, Virginia, and John didn't much care for the low life hanging around in the alley, nor for the excessive horse and buggy traffic constantly passing through it, so he decided to put a total stop to all public access. The gap was only 2.1 m (7 ft) wide, but that would never put off anyone with Hollensbury's level of determination. He wasn't really interested in it as a house, as the primary intent was just to close the alley to traffic, so he only added a front facade and a back wall, and of course a roof, but shared the side walls with the adjacent properties. Indeed, scars from the wagon wheel hubs which chipped away at the walls in the days when this was an alley, still exist to this day.
Narrow it may be, but the Hollensbury Spite House is 7.6 m (25 ft) deep, and obviously has an appeal for someone - the blue house is a lived-in residence today.
6) The Tyler Spite House
This rather attractive building doesn't really look like it was designed out of malice does it? What's more, it was built at the request of one of the most upstanding of American citizens. And yet the intentions behind one part of it were among the most obstructive of all on this page. It stands on a T-junction of two roads, but where it stands should have been a crossroads.
The man who created it was Dr John Tyler, an eminent opthalmologist and the first American born doctor to ever perform a cataract operation. In the year 1813, he owned a house and extensive grounds in Frederick, Maryland. Trouble was, the grounds lay directly in the path of a new road planned by the city to connect Record Street to West Patrick Street, and what the city wanted, the city intended to get. Dr Tyler went to court to fight the plan and researched the law and discovered that once a house building project was underway, a proposed road build through the property would be deemed illegal. Overnight, Tyler set to work and organised the laying of a foundation for an extension to his house - the smaller building to the rear and left of the main frontage.
His plan worked, the road was never built, and Dr Tyler had his extension which he never personally used, but which he later rented out. The house and extension still stands and no casual passer-by today would guess that it exists as testament to one man's determination to put the local authority in its place.
7) John J Randall's Anti-Grid System Spite House
Yet another attractive building is shown in the photo above, and again it's difficult to imagine that this really rather lovely house was built for any reason other than to create a nice home to live in. Maybe so, but again it's the location that matters. Property developer John J. Randall seemingly didn't hate any one individual, but he certainly did hate regimented and boring grid-like road planning which was the norm in his home town of Freeport, New York. Every road there just intersected every other road at right angles. Dull, unimaginative, monotonous. Randall's solution was simple. To put a stop to this uninspiring street plan, he built his house on a triangular plot of land at the end of Lena Road, for no other reason than to force future roads out of the grid shape.
A remarkable house, it took just one day to build (it probably had to be done quick before the authorities got wind of what he was doing), and it remains standing today more than 100 years after it was put up in 1906. And one look at the street map shown here proves that the house fully served the purpose for which Randall built it. Lena Road had to fork around it in this small area of Freeport, effectively destroying forever the road map symmetry which was so displeasing to Randall's eye!
8) The Red and White Candy Stripe House
If you don't have architectural skills or if you want to hedge your bets in case planning permission is denied, you could always take an easier route to spite your neighbours. Sometimes, a new coat of paint is all it requires.
This house is in the highly fashionable district of Kensington, London - one of the richest areas of any city in Europe, where certain standards of good taste and aesthetic design are expected to be maintained. Even the very smallest of apartments here costs over $3 million, and this house is worth far more than that. It belongs to Ms Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, who is a 71 year old Swiss-based property developer. Some time ago she decided she wanted to tear down the house and rebuild it in a $15 million project which would include the installation of a huge basement with swimming pool and gym - a project which would have caused severe disruption to the neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, neighbours objected, and probably as a result of their objection, Ms Lisle-Mainwaring could not get planning permission. So she chose a different option - a new paint job of red and white stripes. It wasn't very well received by residents of some of the other, rather more traditionally decorated dwellings in the neighbourhood, but of course annoying them was her whole raison d'être for the colour scheme. One of the neighbours commented:
'I don’t think it belongs here. It kind of glows in the evening. It’s fluorescent...sort of a cross between beach hut and circus.'
This only happened in 2015, and the house is currently the subject of protests and legal actions by the local residents, and counter appeals by Ms Lisle-Mainwaring. Whatever one thinks of this woman's motivations, one can't help but admire her audacity. But I think perhaps the real stroke of genius, if one looks carefully at the photo, was to leave the extreme right stripe unfinished. Not only is the candy stripe pattern garish - it also offers a frustrating and annoying incompleteness to those locals who are obsessive in their concept of neatness!
Postscript 1st Aug 2015: Since publishing this I have found the following news report online from 24th July:
“An appeal against a Section 215 notice served by the council requiring the owner of 19 South End to repaint her property will be heard at Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court on 15 and 16 December 2015.”
So at the time of writing the red and white stripes are still very much in place.
9) 'Equality Rainbow House' - Neighbours to the Westboro Baptist Church In Kansas
Now this is one I can really applaud! The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious in America. The group has even established a reputation in other countries through television documentaries which have featured the extraordinarily intolerant and vicious belief systems of the congregation. Uncommonly for a church they seem to love to hate, more than loving to love, and the targets for their vile hate campaigns are many and varied, including the Government, the military, Jews, Catholics and Moslems. But perhaps foremost among their targets have been homosexuals. Even their website has the URL 'GodHatesFags'.
So when in March 2013 charity worker Aaron Jackson found that a house opposite the church was up for sale, he bought it. Aaron's charity is called 'Planting Peace'. It's a non-profit organisation which campaigns on a wide range of issues but particularly for environmental causes and humanitarian projects. However, in view of the location and the hostilities of the Westboro Baptist Church towards lesbian and gay people, Aaron's intentions for his new house were very specific. He decided to turn 'Equality House' into a centre for gay rights information. What's more, he made no secret of it. Quite the opposite - he painted it in the rainbow colours of the gay pride movement!
Spite houses generally are born out of petty feuds and personal grievances, or self centred ambitions to out-do one's neighbours. But Aaron Jackson's is a fine example of a more wholesome intent. Yes, it was painted to 'spite' the Westboro Church. Yes, it is deliberately provocative. But it's a delight to think that each and every morning when the members of that church wake up, they get to look at a house painted in the rainbow colours which are pure anathema to them!
10) The Kavanagh Building in Buenos Aires
I was sorely tempted to finish this article with the positive example of the 'Equality House', but surely the ultimate expression of the truism that there are no limits to how far a person will go to satisfy their need for revenge, is the Kavanagh Building in Argentina. Can a monster skyscraper really be a spite house? Apparently it can.
Corina Kavanagh was a wealthy socialite and heiress who planned for her daughter to marry into the local Buenos Aires aristocracy - the rich and well-bred Anchorenas. But opposition came from the Anchorena's matriarch, who did everything she could to put an end to her son's relationship with a 'lower class' girl. So when the wedding plans were rejected, Corina took her revenge. And Corina thought big! Not for her a stripey paint job or a skinny build next to a hated neighbour's house.
The Anchorenas lived on one side of the Plaza San Martin in the Retiro district of Buenos Aires, and on the other side stood the beautiful Basílica del Santisimo Sacramento, a church built by the family to serve as their own personal mausoleum. They would have had a splendid view of this special building. Soon after, a large plot of land on the Plaza came up for auction, and the Anchorenas put in a bid with the hope of building an even more sumptuous estate than their existing home, and even closer to their beautiful church - only to have their bid trumped by Corina.
And it seems that Corina now planned a concrete revenge for the wedding snub. She sold several of her own properties in order to build a massive skyscraper. Completed in 1936, it was the tallest building in South America at 120 m (nearly 400 ft). And the time taken to construct it - just 14 months - was also a record for a building of this scale. But that was not the main point of interest about this remarkable building - it had been designed and located in such a way as to ensure that the Anchorenas could have no new mansion on the Plaza, but also no view of their beloved church.
To be fair nobody would build something this big just out of spite (or would they?) and the Kavanagh Building was certainly constructed to make money. Today the 33 story skyscraper houses 105 uniquely designed apartments, as well as 12 elevators, five staircases, a ground floor shopping centre, a swimming pool and an underground car park. But whatever the main function of the building, its shape and the location were apparently chosen for one reason only - to block the view of the Anchorenas' church.
Final Thoughts by the Author
I must admit to a slightly ambivalent attitude towards these buildings and the people who were responsible for creating them. On the one hand I do suspect that many (but by no means all) of the perpetrators are the sort of cantankerous, vindictive, antisocial individuals that no one would want living anywhere near them. I suspect that some would insist on having their own way even if the whole world was repulsed by their intentions.
On the other hand, there is something to be admired here - the refusal to be pushed around by officialdom or by mean spirited neighbours or relatives, and the desire to stand firm on a point of principle, no matter what the costs.
Spite houses will probably be less common in the future than they once were - greater organisation of society, planning constraints and the tightening up of legal loopholes will see to that. But those spite houses which do stand today are a testament to both the good and the bad qualities of human beings. And they certainly make for a very interesting local attraction and a talking point. One hopes that some at least of these will remain in place for long into the future!
A Companion Page ...
- Nail Houses
10 'nail houses' - examples of buildings which stayed in place long after the neighbourhood has changed - the result of great obstinacy or business acumen. A fun page of quirky buildings!
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