Wee the People

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
  Enlarge Photo    

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The smallest place I've ever lived in was my college freshman dormitory room, which I shared with a guy named Murray. The first time Murray and I saw it, we paced it off in disbelief. The negotiable area was 11 feet long by 11/2 feet wide; that's because the room came with furniture that lined both long walls, allowing only a heel-toe footpath from front to back. When stressed, Murray and I were both pacers, and the only way we could have done it simultaneously would have been in close order with coordinated kick turns, like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Along with other inmates of this brand-new dorm -- we declined to call ourselves "residents" -- Murray and I managed to get out of our lease after just one semester by threatening a class-action lawsuit on the theory that the close quarters could induce claustrophobia, panic attacks, epilepsy, etc. Murray -- true fact -- went on to become a neurologist.

My subsequent apartments weren't all that much bigger. In one place, the bathroom was so cramped I had to sit sidesaddle on the toilet. Even after I married, things didn't get appreciably better: In our first apartment, you could walk unimpeded from the living room to the bedroom only if the oven door was not open.

I am now a genuine adult with an actual family but still live in a pretty small home. That's because it was built in the 19th century in Washington, D.C., when everyone was much smaller except for Abraham Lincoln, who was 6-foot-4 and had size 14 feet. (Which was bizarre when you think about it, because he was the president. It would be as if President Obama were 7-foot-6 and had feet like loaves of pumpernickel.)

But I digress. The point is, old Washington houses are crammed together; architects had to do the best they could with available space, often with eccentric results. My house, for example, technically has four bedrooms, but one of them has only three walls, no door and a closet that is two feet off the ground. A second bedroom has no closet at all. In a third bedroom, the ceiling is so low I can change the light bulbs while standing flatfoot.

This is all by way of background, to explain how excited I was the other day when Marta, a neighbor of mine, asked if I'd like to take a tour of a house she recently bought and planned to rent. The house is right next to hers. Records show it is -- by far -- the smallest house in Washington. It was built around 1920, apparently as some sort of shop. I went to see it with an urban homeowner's sense of schadenfreude and was not disappointed. The house is nine feet wide and one short-stack story tall, and it stands out from the other houses on the block like a Barbie doll in a police lineup.

You walk in to a living room the size of a kitchen, then a kitchen the size of a bathroom, then a bathroom the size of a closet, then ... nothing. That's when you have to walk back up front and realize that the living room the size of a kitchen is also the bedroom. The basin in the bathroom sink is about the size of an ice cube tray, which is interesting because the refrigerator, which is the size of a waste basket, has no freezer. The floor plan is 252 square feet. The back yard is about the size of a garage, and it's bigger than the house.

Marta and her husband initially tried to rent the place based on a cheerfully euphemistic ad emphasizing such things as coziness and charm; at the open house, prospective renters walked through in ashen-faced horror. So then Marta and her husband wrote another ad, saying this is essentially THE SMALLEST TINIEST DINKIEST MOST RIDICULOUS ABSURD MINI-DEMI-PSEUDO-SILLYHOUSE IN WASHINGTON, and potential renters descended with awe and delight.

The following paragraph is a gift to all of you urban dwellers who, in these troubled times, might feel you are living too small and too expensive.

Marta and her husband bought the house for $245,000. They found a very delighted occupant, a woman who just moved up from Texas and is press secretary to a congressman. Her rent is $1,000 a month. She feels she got a great deal.

You're welcome.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity