The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boston’s ‘Skinny House,’ built in a family feud during the Civil War, sells for more than a million dollars

Dating back to the Civil War era, Boston's “Skinny House” is the narrowest house in the city. It was sold for $1.25 million on Sept. 16. (Atlantic Virtual)
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With an origin tale of spite between two feuding brothers and a prime location amid historical sites in Boston’s North End neighborhood, the house at 44 Hull St. was sold for $1.25 million — yet its fat price is everything but indicative of its size. Nicknamed “The Skinny House,” it is also the city’s narrowest home.

Sandwiched between two brick buildings, the sage-green four-floor house contains 1,165 square feet. Its widest point is some 10 feet wide, but its narrowest measures 6.2 feet across.

“Shaquille O’Neal would definitely be able to touch wall to wall,” said Travis Sachs, the executive vice president at CL Properties, the real estate agency that sold the property.

Multiple offers came in after the house was listed on Aug. 10, said Carmela Laurella, president of CL Properties, and it was sold to a family of four. The deal was finalized Thursday for $50,000 above the original asking price — something that Sachs said was “in line with” the city’s real estate market.

“In the North End waterfront area, we basically average here about a thousand dollars a square foot,” Sachs said. “We sold above that, for about $1,500 per square foot, the reason being that the house is fully renovated, has the outdoor space in the back and also the private roof deck.”

The quaint house is made for vertical dwelling, with each of the floors representing a living space. To enter, people have to inch down the narrow alley to open the main door, where they are immediately greeted by the kitchen and dining area. Up the stairs, the second floor includes a living area, a dining nook and a bathroom decorated with blue tiles. The two remaining levels are bedrooms with sitting areas and big windows, Sachs said.

Perhaps its best amenity, Laurella said, is theunbelievable backyard,” or private garden, where its two new young dwellers will surely be able to play and run around.

“It’s certainly unique,” said Sachs. “There’s nothing else like it that we have here. It’s really a landmark in Boston.”

Sitting near some of Boston’s most renowned historical landmarks, the Skinny House is an unofficial stop on the Freedom Trail — which includes 16 national sites on its route. The house is right across from Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston’s second-oldest cemetery, which includes the graves of two Puritan ministers associated with the Salem witch trials. The upper deck offers a view of the harbor and the USS Constitution, the 224-year-old ship that defeated four British frigates in 1812, is visible as well.

The house itself is not a historic site, but its quirkiness has become part of Boston’s lore.

Legend has it that the city’s narrowest house emerged from a feud between two brothers who inherited land from their deceased father. While one was fighting in the Civil War, the other built a property on it. When he returned, he built the “Skinny House” in 1862 in an attempt to block his brother’s views and sunlight, earning the house the alternative nickname of the “Spite House” — which is proudly displayed in a wooden plaque on its front.

Building a house to irk a family member can seem petty at best and malicious at worst, but it is not unique to the Skinny House. Across the country, a slew of buildings, known as “spite houses,” have also have stories rooted in conflict. .

In 19th-century Council Bluffs, Iowa, an individual disliked Gen. Grenville Dodge — a Union Army officer who helped direct the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad — so much that he built in 1869 a house in front of Dodge’s property to spite him, according to the Annals of Iowa, which is published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Some eight years ago, a man in Topeka, Kan., decked a house with pride flag colors to fight the Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for its anti-LGBTQ signs located across from the building now known as “the rainbow house.”

These instances might provoke ire from neighbors or, in the case of Westboro Baptist Church, the erection of a tall and sturdy fence. Yet, in the United States there is no law to prevent petty behavior — unless the decision can be proved to stem from malice and to cause harm to the other party, said Roger A. McEowen, a professor of agricultural law and taxation at Washburn University School of Law.

“Because the courts have said that those disputes are left up to zoning and planning officials, they are leaving it to the city officials to determine what is an acceptable use of property, unless it gets into the issue of maliciousness or creating nuisance,” he said.

In the United States “there’s no recognized negative easement for light, air or view,” McEowen said, meaning that owners are not restricted from taking certain actions that may block their neighbor’s sunlight — as was the case with the feuding brothers.

However, when a property owner’s decisions are shown to cause harm, the court can side with the spited party. Such was the case, the law professor said, of the popular 1988 Coty v. Ramsey Associates, Inc — in which man’s decision to haul in truckloads of manure and erratically operate a pig farm to spite his neighboring hotel owners was found to be an “unreasonable and substantial” interference of the other’s use and enjoyment of their property.

In his career as an agricultural lawyer, McEowen said he has dealt with a fair share of similar disputes — mostly involving fences sprung out of spite. He said their emergence shows that “there’s no law against being a bully or being an ogre,” he said. “Unless it crosses into maliciousness.”

According to psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, people engage in such forms of retaliation when they feel victimized. Their motivation, however, “can easily underestimate the repercussions of their vindictiveness” — sometimes resulting in a nasty legal battle, a hefty fine or a minuscule house.

When it comes to the Skinny House, its history might have provided some charm.

“For $1.25 million you can live like a spiteful brother,” Sachs said. “That’s really something.”