Answer Man: In Search Of Houses That Spite Built

By John Kelly
Sunday, March 26, 2006

W hen I lived in Washington in the 1940s, there was a house called the "Spite House." It was only one room wide and was supposedly separated from a full-size house after a family quarrel. Do you have any information on it? I've never been able to find anything in any of the books about Washington oddities.

Elizabeth Farr, Henrietta, N.Y.

People can achieve weird and wonderful things when fueled by unadulterated vitriol. The question is: Did spite actually inspire any houses in the Washington area?

A "spite house" is a house built to tick someone off, usually a neighbor. Generally they are built to deny a neighbor light or access to a road or alley. They probably wouldn't get much attention if they looked like normal houses, but spite houses have a reputation for being kind of odd looking, since they're usually built on narrow parcels of land.

Several Georgetown homes have traditionally been called spite houses. The most storied is at 1239 30th St. NW. It's a shade under 11 feet wide, built between two larger houses. Homeowner Joe Krakora said he heard it was a spite house, "though I've never been able to verify it."

A 1933 article in The Washington Post said it was "built for the express purpose of shutting out light and air from [its] neighbor's windows." But a letter to the editor a month later, from a man who had lived on 30th Street, insisted that 1239 was built "by a widow, not as a spite house, but as an assistance to support her fatherless children."

The 11-foot-wide house at 3047 N St. NW is also wedged between two larger homes. "From what I've heard, the reason that house was built, one neighbor wanted to spite the other neighbor out of the garden they somewhat shared," said homeowner Alison Beimler . (It's for sale, by the way.)

Old Town Alexandria has several skinny dwellings that, legend has it, were built as spite houses. Al Cox , the city's code enforcement architect, isn't so sure. He studied 523 Queen St., which was built in an alley using walls of two existing houses. Although it's not always clear who owned alleys in Old Town, Al thinks that particular alley was probably private property. A roof and front and back walls were erected as a practical way to provide more room for family or servants.

Said Al: "Whether that made somebody angry who thought they had a right of passage through that alley, it probably did." Whether it was done simply to spite that person, that's harder to pin down. "I think that story has an interesting appeal on a walking tour, but I think it's probably a bit exaggerated," Al said.

There are bona fide spite houses, however. Answer Man always thought Frederick's Tyler-Spite House was named after two families. In fact, it's named after one family and one emotion. Dr. John Taylor , known as America's first oculist, lived in a house adjacent to a vacant lot that he owned. In 1814, Frederick's burghers proposed extending Record Street through his lot. Taylor made a preemptive strike.

"He put up a foundation so that by the time all the legislation got passed to okay the street, they couldn't get through," said Marie Washburn , the Historical Society of Frederick County's librarian.

New York had a famed spite house at 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Built in 1882 by Joseph Richardson to cut off the view from nearby homes, it was five feet wide, 100 feet long and four stories high. It was torn down in 1915.

That such homes are rare in the District might be because of a rule put in place by George Washington to ensure adequate light. According to a 1902 article in The Post: "This old regulation, the product of the thoughtful and far-seeing mind of the great Washington, put a damper on 'spite building' at the time of the city's founding, and it is on that account that spite houses are in a decided minority in the Capital."

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