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Holdouts: The Solitary Resisters of Real Estate

Vera Coking's Atlantic City, New Jersey, home, which Donald Trump attempted to acquire through eminent domain to build limousine parking for his casino (phot by Jack Boucher/Historic American Buildings Survey)
Vera Coking’s Atlantic City, New Jersey, home, which Donald Trump attempted to acquire through eminent domain to build limousine parking for his casino (photo by Jack Boucher/Historic American Buildings Survey)

For all his money and power, Donald Trump couldn’t force a widow from her New Jersey home back in the 1990s. Trump wanted to buy Vera Coking’s house in Atlantic City and tear it down in order to create limousine parking for his expanding casino. But Coking didn’t want to move from or sell the three-story home where she’d lived since the 1960s with her late husband and their children. Her eventual victory against the seemingly unstoppable real estate mogul, and now presidential primary candidate, is a triumphant example of a holdout, an act of resilience wherein people refuse to move or give up their physical space in the world, no matter the cost.

Manuel Roig-Franzia recently returned to Coking’s story in the Washington PostRoig-Franzia describes how Coking faced losing her house to eminent domain if she didn’t accept a money offer in 1994 from the city’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Trump, not surprisingly, “took the casino authority’s side in the lawsuit.” Finally, in 1998, the Superior Court of New Jersey “ruled that the casino authority and Trump were wrong. The government couldn’t take Coking’s house and let Trump have it.”

An old building caught between two newer structures in Manhattan (photo by Tony Hisgett/Flickr)
An old building caught between two newer structures in Manhattan (photo by Tony Hisgett/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Much like the spite houses previously explored on Hyperallergic, buildings that are constructed as an act of revenge or resistance, holdouts represent an architecture of defiance. Almost every place has one: the lone tenement dweller who wouldn’t budge; the homeowners who wouldn’t sell, so the road had to be routed around them; the old building that’s now so tightly wedged between new construction it seems about to be crushed.

When my middle school in Oklahoma attempted to buy a whole block for a surrounding park, I remember one old, Victorian-style wood house that couldn’t be had. The neighboring houses were all bought and demolished, grass and trees planted over the lots and alleyway, yet the house stayed. At one point the owners even painted their sidewalk as a yellow brick road and let chickens run free in the front yard.

The 2009 Pixar film Up was inspired by the saga of Edith Macefield’s house in Seattle, which, like the fictional home, was surrounded on all sides by huge modern buildings. Macefield passed away in 2008, and last year the house narrowly avoided demolition, though its future is still uncertain. Macefield’s home standing tall against the shrouding development of a city that’s constantly building bigger recalls the famed nail houses of China — sole structures that remain amid construction sites for gargantuan new apartment complexes. There’s even a “nail tomb” at one site where a family declined to dig up a relative’s grave.

Edith Macefield's house in Seattle in 2008 (photo by Ben Tesch/Wikimedia)
Edith Macefield’s house in Seattle in 2008 (photo by Ben Tesch/Wikimedia)
A "nail house" in the Hongkou District of Shanghai, China (photo by Drew Bates/Flickr)
A “nail house” in the Hongkou District of Shanghai, China (photo by Drew Bates/Flickr)

It’s not always homes that are the holdouts, or even buildings at all. Hess Triangle in Manhattan’s West Village is just a wedge-shaped mosaic on the sidewalk. It reads: “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.” David Hess’s estate was claimed by the city in the early 20th century through eminent domain, but his relatives later realized that the city missed a tiny part of the land. According to Gothamist, the triangle was finally sold for $1,000 in 1938, although the mosaic remains.

Hess Triangle in New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hess Triangle in New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York City, as you might expect, has tons of holdouts. The most famous might be the Million Dollar Corner, the nickname for a small piece of land that stopped Macy’s at Herald Square from having a whole block in the early 1900s. As Ephemeral New York explains, someone with Siegel-Cooper, a rival department store, bought the plot as part of a failed power move. Macy’s built around it, and Siegel-Cooper constructed its own building in 1903. Go there today and you’ll see a Sunglass Hut topped by a huge shopping bag–shaped sign for Macy’s, hiding the odd chunk missing from the store.

Million Dollar Corner
New York City’s “Million Dollar Corner” in 1907 (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
Million Dollar Corner
Macy’s and the “Million Dollar Corner” in 2010 (photo by Mike Strand/Wikimedia)

Holdouts sometimes get the last laugh; Donald Trump’s grand casino eventually collapsed. The owners of Van der Pigge drugstore in Haarlem, Netherlands, spurned selling in the 1920s, when the huge Vroom and Dreesmann department store wanted to build over their land, so the small building was barred in on three sides instead. As Expats Haarlem reported in February, however, the larger “store palace” is now closed, and the tiny Van der Pigge still goes on operating.

Yet more often, once the holdouts are trapped on all sides by new construction, the value of their buildings goes down, and the owners end up caught in the hated development all the same. Other times, they can only turn down so much money. Andrew Alpern, who wrote a book in 1984 called Holdouts!, told the New York Daily News in 2013 that since its publication, 10 of the 50 sites he’d researched in Manhattan had gone. The holdout’s resistance can be long or brief, but in that time of dissidence, it reminds us that one person can disrupt the seemingly unstoppable real estate machine.

A 19th-century structure surrounded by construction in Washington, DC (photo by Payton Chung/Wikimedia)
A 19th-century structure surrounded by construction in Washington, DC (photo by Payton Chung/Wikimedia)
Wickham's Department Store in London, with its building broken up by a holdout (photo by SilkTork/Wikimedia)
Wickham’s Department Store in London, with its building broken up by a holdout (photo by SilkTork/Wikimedia)
The Figo House that survived through its owner arguing against eminent laws in Portland, Oregon (photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia)
The Figo House that survived through its owner arguing against eminent domain laws in Portland, Oregon (photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia)
Van der Pigge drugstore in Haarlem, Netherlands, closed in on three sides by the Vroom & Dreesman department store (photo by Johan Bakker/Wikimedia)
Van der Pigge drugstore in Haarlem, Netherlands, closed in on three sides by the Vroom & Dreesman department store (photo by Johan Bakker/Wikimedia)
Vegas Lounge in Washington, DC, between new construction (photo by Josh/Flickr)
Vegas Lounge in Washington, DC, between new construction (photo by Josh/Flickr)
St. Joseph Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas (via Wikimedia)
St. Joseph Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, refused to move for new construction. (via Wikimedia)
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