The House That Spite Built

The Taj Mahal is a dazzling, ivory white mausoleum which nestles on the bank of the Yamuna River, in India. It’s a breathtaking sight but its meaning is even more beautiful.

Commissioned by the Shah Jahan in 1632, the Taj Mahal was built to honor and forever commemorate his undying love for his wife, who died in childbirth. It reminds us all of how we humans are capable of rising above our pettiness and self-interest to express something sublime and transcendent, through a timeless piece of architecture.

While all this is great and all, this story is kind of the opposite to that. This is a story about a small, blue monument to human inventiveness and the ignoble pursuit of being kind of a dick.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. It is the early 1800s in the little town of Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria is a bustling place with all manner of business playing out within the small town’s confines.

Little wonder then that a dense network of alleyways emerged throughout the town to allow busy townsfolk and merchants to travel easily by foot, thus avoiding the mud and mess of the busy roads, full of horse drawn carriages.

The town is still blessed with this twisty spider’s web of walkways. It’s a great system to this day and it’s a little piece of town planning history, untouched by modernity…

Unless, of course, you happen to live near Queen Street in the Old Town district….

If you happened to be on vacation in Virginia and decided to turn to walk down that particular alleyway (perhaps in the touristy hopes of encountering a quaint shoe maker and his homely wife) you’d be at serious risk of breaking your nose.

Why? Because in this one alleyway sits a ridiculously narrow, blue dwelling. Narrow isn’t really a sufficiently claustrophobic word to capture how impossibly teensy this house actually is. We’re talking about 25 feet long and a mere 7 feet wide. To swing a cat in a dwelling of these Lilliputian dimensions would require an extremely small feline (possibly missing half its tail), a keen eye and a degree in physics.

Other than being ridiculously small, the house is actually quite “normal” in appearance. It’s got cute little shutters, a potted plant out the front and a generally wholesome bricky vibe about it.

Locals have a name for this puzzling abode. They call it Spite House. So, what’s the story of this odd, small, blue house that spite built?

The story of Spite House begins in 1830.

At this time, one John Hollensbury (may infamy ever besmirch his name) lived in a regular-sized house adjacent to the alley in question. Who he was and what kind of a person he was is lost in the mists of time, but we know that he was thoroughly fed up.

You see, John took issue with the constant stream of ne’er do wells, loiterers and people of ill repute who used “his” alleyway as a thoroughfare. Slathering injury upon insult, the constant clamor of vendor carts scraped and clattered down the alleyway at all times of the night.

In a stupendous act of breathtaking misanthropy, John took it upon himself to build a tiny blue house in the alleyway, thus heroically restoring peace and decorum to his neighborhood. So began the legend of Spite House, a home built for the sole purpose of thwarting the ambulatory aspirations of pesky pedestrians.

Being spiteful is not that unusual. If history shows anything it’s that humans tend to have that particular motivation down pat.

But there is a mystery…

The mystery is this. Why did this rather Grinch-like individual choose to build a fully functional (and quite lovely) house?

I mean, there have to be easier ways to thwart people from walking down an alleyway, right? You could build a barricade or a brick wall. You could pretend to be quasi noble and commission the construction of a vegetable garden to feed the neighborhood’s needy folk. But no, John looked at a seven foot wide stretch of wagon-rutted mud and decided that this was prime real estate for a dwelling.

The Spite House interior isn’t just a glorified brick room, either! In the equivalent space of a cramped public restroom, John managed to include sleeping quarters and amenities, a completely functional kitchen, a small (but allegedly adorable) garden and even (get off the grass) actual, usable storage space. Sadly, I guess we’ll never know exactly why John Hollensbury, a man of incontestable dickishness, would transform such base motivations into a place to live.

What we do know though is that the story of this meagre monument to misanthropy has an odd twist.

Over the years locals began to see Spite House differently. What was once a nuisance and public annoyance gradually transformed into part of the scenery and fabric of an old and colorful neighborhood. Then a wave of gentrification took hold and this little blue house began to be seen as a small but important part of the town’s history.

In 2016, Spite House went on the market and was sold for over $500,000. A ridiculous sum for such a tiny, awkward, cramped place to live. It even got some air time on Oprah.

From an act of utter disregard for town planning, to an accepted part of town life, to its recognition as a historical landmark and then finally to a trendy dwelling in hot demand.

History is an odd beast. It just goes to show you…

Sure, history is full of stories of our grandness and, like the Taj Mahal, there are places on earth which serve as a perpetual reminder of the heights were capable of.

But you know what? I have to admit I think it’s kind of a good thing that we have reminders of our equally profound capability for mean-spiritedness, selfishness and general all round nastiness. The Spite House is an eloquent expression of the latter.