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Spite houses are homes built on anger. They are typically designed to block a neighbor’s view or sunlight, often with walls aggressively grazing property lines. Whatever their shape, these are structures meant to provoke. A pink house stranded out in a Massachusetts marsh is said to be an exact duplicate of a divorced couple’s home, erected to fulfill a final agreement, with only saltwater running in its pipes. A claustrophobically narrow house in Virginia was constructed only to block public access to an alleyway.
Spite houses can be found around the world — the 1936 Kavanagh Building in Buenos Aires, for example, supposedly achieved its then-status as the tallest skyscraper in Latin America in order to block the church view of a rich family that rejected their son’s marriage to a less wealthy woman. However, something about the US spirit for private property, for claiming what land you can and keeping strangers off your lawn, seems to have led to a concentration of them in the United States.
In the town where I grew up in Oklahoma, I remember an antique store lodged in an old house that was painted bright pink. The Pepto-Bismol hue riled the neighbors, and the house was eventually whitewashed, but its interior held an enduring act of spite: all the walls were painted the offending shade of pink. Similar to holdout buildings, like the nail houses of China whose owners refused to make way for development, spite houses are acts of protest. Just as Edith Macefield’s petite home in Seattle, a famed holdout which she refused to sell to developers, is now encircled by a massive commercial building (and threatened by demolition), the houses are statements of their owners’ defiance.
Last month, Kate Bolick wrote about the haunting Pink House on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, for the New York Times. The house appeared on a forlorn marsh in 1925 when “a wife agreed to divorce her husband on the condition he build her an exact duplicate of the home they shared in town.” He grimly held his end of the bargain, but had the copy designed like a readymade ghost of their lost relationship, with no fresh water, just salt, available from its taps. There’s a grassroots campaign underway to protect the Pink House, which is now something of a local icon and threatened by demolition under its ownership by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bolick’s Pink House article inspired Patrick Sisson at Curbed to round up some of the most famous spite houses, such as the 10-foot-wide Skinny House in Boston, dating to the 19th century, when one brother supposedly build a huge house on the family land, prompting the other brother to add his own tiny house and mask the view.
There’s also a rainbow-painted house in Topeka, Kansas, right across from the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, a house striped like a candy cane in a wealthy London neighborhood in reaction to its owner’s renovation plans being shot down by neighbors (although the paint was ordered removed by the Kensington and Chelsea Council last year), and the seven-foot-wide Spite House of Alexandria, Virginia, built by John Hollensbury to keep people out of his alley (according to the New York Times, the living room has the alleyway’s brick walls, which have holes still visible from the hubs of wagon wheels).
Generally, the aim of these homes’ builders was not habitation, as is the case with the 1815 Tyler Spite House in Frederick, Maryland, built by Dr. John Tyler to stop a road from being built through his property. According to the Los Angeles Times, when he found a local law that could stop the street if there was a big building project, he had a foundation put in place overnight and it was discovered by a befuddled construction crew the next morning. The road still stops abruptly at the house’s doorstep.
New York City once had an infamous spite house at 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue. The 1882 Richardson Spite House came to be when Joseph Richardson was insulted by a neighbor’s meager offer for his land. He reportedly proclaimed: “I shall build me a couple of tall houses on the little strip which will bar the light from Sarner’s windows overlooking my land, and he’ll find he would have profited had he paid me the $5,000.” It was finally torn down after a 1915 sale (Daytonian in Manhattan has a thorough recap of the lost building’s history).
There are numerous other examples, like the Cake House in Gaylordsville, which resembles a precarious tower of houses growing smaller and smaller until its top. Legend has it that it was built in protest of the owner’s foster daughter’s baby being taken away by the state. Much like the belated Broken Angel in Brooklyn, its unconventional form is an architectural provocation against the homes around it.
There are also commercial spite houses, like the twin wooden Irish Hills Towers in Cambridge Township, Michigan. Although they’re attached now (and in a vulnerable situation due to a proposed demolition), the two observation towers were built separately. One was constructed in 1924 by the Michigan Observation Company, the other by a farmer who owned the other half of the bluff. The both kept building higher, one called “Original Irish Hills Tower,” the other “Gray Tower.” The nearly conjoined rivals were only connected by a new owner in the 1950s.
City ordinances on light access and fire regulations for such narrow buildings mean spite houses can’t be built as easily today, and those that survive face preservation issues. Last year, a late 19th-century spite wall — a huge swoop of stone on a Wicker Park greystone in Chicago hiding the Victorian home from a hated neighbor — was removed. It can be hard to love houses built on hate, whose designs were guided by rage. Yet these are unique acts of architecture, reminders that a home is after all a symbol of its occupant’s place in the world, and these represent the legacies of people who refused to settle for the status quo.