Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

The Old Spite House in Marblehead, Massachusetts, was constructed in 1715 by Robert Wood for the Graves brothers, who were quarreling fishermen. (1912 postcard) (via Wikimedia)

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.

Edith Macefield’s house in Seattle in 2012 (photo by Payton Chung/Flickr)

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.

The Pink House of Plum Island, Massachusetts, in 2013 (photo by Lee Wright/Flickr)

A Snowy Owl on the Pink House in 2014 (photo by Alex1961/Flickr)

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).

The Skinny House of Boston, viewed through the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (photo by John Stephen Dwyer/Wikimedia)

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.

The Tyler Spite House in Frederick, Maryland, built to stop the construction of a road (photo by Thisisbossi/Wikimedia)

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).

The Richardson Spite House being demolished in 1915. It once stood at Lexington Avenue and 82nd Street. (via Wikimedia)

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.

Cake House in Gaylordsville, Connecticut (photo by Bruce Berrien/Flickr)

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.

The Irish Hills Towers in Michigan in 2007 (photo by Angela/Flickr)

View of the Irish Hill Towers in 1949, showing one as the “Original Irish Hills Tower,” and the rival as the “Gray Tower” (via Wystan/Flickr)

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.

A “spite house” that’s 11 feet wide, built in 1926, in Georgetown, Washington, DC (photo by AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia)

The 1920s Montlake Spite House in Seattle, supposedly built in a divorce, although another story has it that it was built by a warring neighbor (photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia)

The Spite House of Alameda, California, that is 10 feet wide, built as a protest against city development (photo by Elf/Wikimedia)

Closer view of the Alameda Spite House in 2008 (photo by Lisle Boomer/Flickr)

The eight-foot-wide O’Reilly Spite House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in 1908 when Francis O’Reilly didn’t get the price he wanted from his neighbor for the land (photo by Arnold Reinhold/Wikimedia)

A home said to be a spite house in Georgetown, Washington, DC, in 2013 (photo by Eric Fischer/Flickr)

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, the National Gallery of Art finally acquired a major work by Faith Ringgold, the director of The Velvet Underground talks film, North America’s Hindu Nationalist problem, canceling legacy admissions, and more.

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

21 replies on “The Spite House, an Architectural Phenomenon Built on Rage and Revenge”

  1. Calling Edith Macefield’s house a Spite house is not accurate. As we understand in Edith’s neighborhood of Ballard where I also live, old Ms. Macefield didn’t want to leave until she finally just got too old to leave.
    The developer and Edith were on good enough terms that she left the house to the construction superintendent of the project for taking such good care of her during the construction. They probably offered her at least 5 times what the house was worth and when she didn’t sell, they put up the building on the land they did own. Its a good photo, but spite and anger had nothing to do with it as I understand it.

    What does a million dollars mean to a declining 87 year old woman, compared to living out her final years at home anyway?

    1. If you read the article, you’d see that I mentioned that as a hold out house, rather than a spite house, which I agree are similar but not the same.

      1. I am so glad I chose to participate in the discussion with anecdotes and facts to receive an unkind response from the author that suggests that I am foolish enough to respond without reading the article. Imagine the possibility that the reader is, indeed, a reader and not the idiot you suggest. What a boon it would be to take a look at one’s writing structure and use of pictures to get an understanding of why it might not read in the way you intended.

        1. You stated that it was not accurate, so I was responding directly. I do appreciate the addition of the anecdotes, and the boons. If my response read as unkind, I do apologize.

        2. Some say never argue with an idiot because some people might not be able to tell the difference. However, in this case Carol is obviously the idiot. It’s not even close.

  2. Very interesting article. I wonder what it would be like to live in a tiny, narrow house, like the one that is 10 ft. wide?

  3. Today too many people build huge houses to block their neighbors’ view just to show off that they can afford huge houses.

  4. Maybe the shotgun house is a spite house, if the stories are true. The story goes that cities assessed property tax by frontage. To save money, the lots and houses became narrow and long.

    1. Shotgun houses are certainly not examples of of spite houses. They are a form
      of vernacular architecture based on West African structures that have
      gone through many iterations. They are found almost exclusively in the
      Southeast U.S. and the Caribbean where slaves were transported. Shotgun
      is an alteration of “togun”, the Yoruban word for house. I know the old
      saying is that it’s called a shotgun house because you could shoot a
      shotgun straight through the house, but that is not where the name came from
      and, if you have ever fired a shotgun, you know that is also not true.

      And
      if you are referring, perhaps, to the single houses that are unique to
      Charleston, SC – this is also not the case. They were not built long
      and narrow with minimal frontage for tax reasons. The footprint of the
      single house was influenced by the original plan of the city when it was
      walled, and also to allow for maximum cross ventilation in the hot and
      humid climate pre-A/C.

      Those tour guides should get a slap on the wrist for perpetuating lies when the truth is so much more interesting!!

  5. There is this in London,(UK) unfortunately now under threat from redevelopment: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2015/01/09/save-spiegelhalters/ Built in 1927, but closed now for many years, Wickhams Department Store in the Mile End Rd was meant to be the “Harrods of East London”. The
    hubris of its developers in the early years of the twentieth century
    was such that they simply assumed the small shopkeepers in this terrace
    would all fall into line and agree to move out, so the masterplan to
    build the new department store could proceed. But they met their match
    in the Spiegelhalters at 81 Mile End Rd, the shop you see sandwiched in
    the middle.

  6. I believe, and many in the architecture world believe, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum was FLR “ef you” to NY….his sole commission in NYC left him bitter it has been said. From the canted floor for awkward viewing and tricky displaying of art, to the curiously low rail wall that inspires vertigo, not to mention the most awkward facilities, leaves one wondering ~

  7. In Dallas, there was a lot of hullabaloo about a bank buying up land in an old neighborhood for a local branch. One guy said no. Lawyers, blahblah, The decision reached was simple and elegant. Turn the design 90 degrees, and the hold out’s property was in a corner of the parking lot. They paid him a fair price for his house, let him live there until he died, then they’d doze his house and enlarge the parking lot.

Comments are closed.