Day 853: Flipping The Bird At Your Neighbors And Calling It Home

originally published May 2, 2014

There are many reasons why one would construct a house. You might be tearing down an old dilapidated monstrosity, or maybe you’re breaking fresh ground that was once farmland – doing your part to fly the banner of urban sprawl. Perhaps you’re on estate land that has been re-zoned and you’re claiming their little chunk of suburban paradise. Then again, sometimes a home can be built purely on spite.

Yes, spite. That frazzle-haired, conch-kneed crone, wagging her accusatory walking stick with a crotchety shimmy at her mortal foes. This wicked spinster has inspired dozens of domiciles over the past 300 years – fully inhabitable and architecturally-sound testaments to the power of passive-aggression. A spite house might block a view or access to sunlight. It could barricade a quick passage or spoil an idyllic street. One thing it always does is send a message.

A spite house is more effective than a sign and more enduring than a malicious prank. It delivers far more essence of fuck-you than a punch to the jawline, and without the threat of incarceration. Have a beef with your neighbor? Check your local building codes and see if you can get away with something like this.

No one knows why Thomas Wood built this strange house configuration on Orne Street in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It could be that he hated the plot of land he had been allotted, nudged right against a fork in the road. Some say he hated his brother and the two lived side by side without speaking to one another. This strange residence – now 298 years old – still stands and is still occupied, presumably by people who don’t possess such a loathing of their neighbors. It’s now a tourist attraction known as the Marblehead Spite House.

When Thomas McCobb returned home from overseas in 1806, he was upset to learn that his mother and stepbrother had conspired to inherit his father’s Phippsburg, Maine mansion while he’d been gone. In a luxurious act of revenge, Thomas scooted across the street and up a knoll to build this opulent manor, which overlooked (and overshadowed) the family mansion he’d been denied. Whether or not Thomas rigged up the outhouses to run their mess down the hill through his family’s neighboring property, I have no idea. I hope so.

The McCobb Spite House is still standing as well, though now it’s sending its boastful glares over the water at Penobscot Bay, about 85 miles south. Its new owner has relocated, renovated and expanded the house, and still proudly calls it the McCobb Spite House. Even in the wake of extreme bitterness, the historical record must be preserved.

Dr. John Tyler thought he had a pretty good life. He was the first person to pull off a successful cataract operation, he had the respect of his peers and community, and he had a sweet piece of real estate in the heart of Frederick, Maryland. Then one day in 1814, the city decided it wanted to extend Record Street right through his property to meet up with West Patrick Street. Doc Tyler wasn’t thrilled about this; it was his land. Maybe  he had plans to build a swimming pool, a jai alai pitch, an emu sanctuary – it shouldn’t have mattered. But the city had the right to make this call.

Except for one little clause in the city charter. Road work could not proceed on a property if construction was in progress. Doc Tyler quickly hopped on his horse and commissioned a team of workers to lay an immediate foundation, stopping the road crew in their tracks the next morning. His house still stands – a reminder to the town that no plucky notion of potential infrastructure was going to stop Doc Tyler from stretching out on his own turf.

The legend behind Boston’s ‘Skinny House’ is another tale of brotherly bitchiness. While the names are lost to the ages, the story goes that one brother left for some far-away military service, while the other stayed behind on the land they’d inherited from their father. For whatever reason, the home-bound brother built a nice sprawling house, leaving only a sliver of land undeveloped. I guess he’d hoped his brother would either perish in the line of duty, or would return home and decide to build elsewhere. His brother did neither.

The four-story narrow house was built on that tiny strip of soil, towering high enough to block the sun on his brother’s house. It’s only 10.4 feet wide at the front, tapering to 9.25 feet at the back. It may seem uninhabitable, but it remains a legitimately used residence. And why not? As long as the people inside don’t mind stairs.

The Sam Kee Company was one of Vancouver’s most successful Chinese merchant firms around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903 they purchased the above building, which was mostly expropriated by the city nine years later in order to widen Pender Street. The logical thing would have been to cut their losses and hack the building to the ground. Instead, local architects Brown and Gillam came up with this design, which at less than five feet deep on the main floor makes the Sam Kee Building the skinniest building on the planet.

The basement – which used to house public baths – stretches out below the sidewalk, and the overhanging second story allows for a comfortable six feet of depth for its tenants. The Guinness Book of Records has slapped the stamp on the Sam Gee Building, though proponents of Pittsburgh’s Skinny Building (which is 5’2” wide on all floors) claim the skinniest-building honor should go to them. This is a battle I have no desire to step into.

Without question the most impressive spite house belongs to a man named Aaron Jackson in Topeka, Kansas. Aaron had no beef with his brother, nor was he opening fire on a land-hungry city. No, Aaron is the founder of Planting Peace, a non-profit organization that touches on environmental concerns, anti-bullying and humanitarian efforts. CNN called him a hero for deworming millions of children in post-quake Haiti (though he probably didn’t do it all personally). I call him a hero for setting up Equality House, a resource center for their anti-bullying campaigns. Painted proudly in the rainbow colors of gay pride and LGBT solidarity, Equality House is located directly across the street from that fecal sediment of humankind known as the Westboro Baptist Church.

If you aren’t familiar with this church, look ‘em up. And take some Gravol first because it’s going to get ugly. Jackson has arranged for a gay wedding to be held on the front lawn, and even when a 5-year-old girl had profanities yelled at her by the so-called ‘devout’ church-goers for selling “Pink Lemonade for Peace” one afternoon, Jackson and his crew refused to back down.

Most spite houses are born of petty feuds and passive-aggressive self-righteousness. Jackson’s stands for clarity of thought and a well-intentioned heart.

Not to mention a hearty pair of cajones.

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