Spite Houses are a Testament to Humanity’s Capacity for Genius and Evil
Vancouver isn't exempt from spite-driven architecture either.
June 22, 2018
Some people have an amazing capacity for grudges. So much so that there’s an entire genre of buildings constructed for the express purpose of pissing someone else off. They’re called ‘spite houses’ and they’re fantastic. The Wikipedia article is some great afternoon reading.
The first spite house—as far as we know—was built in Marblehead, Massachusetts by a brother disappointed in the tiny share of land he got in the family inheritance. So he decided to to block his brothers’ views with a tall, skinny, and otherwise useless house on his tiny plot.
The story has repeated itself through the generations, like in 1925 when a Seattle resident asked to buy a parcel of yard from his neighbour to plant a garden. The neighbour was so insulted by the lowball offer that he built a two-storey 860-square-foot home over the plot, that’s barely five feet wide at its narrowest point, and only fifteen feet at its widest. I mean, jeez, how insulting was the offer?
Drive through the marshlands around Newbury, Massachusetts—there are a LOT of spite houses in Massachusetts as it turns out—and you’ll find a hot-pink single family home on an island in a salt marsh. The ‘Plum Island Pink House’ came about when a local woman agreed to a divorce on a condition that her ex-husband build her an exact replica of their home. Unfortunately, she didn’t specify where he had to build it, so he built the house smack in the middle of a salt marsh, with plumbing that only carried saltwater. It might be picturesque, but that house was built on some pretty salty foundations.
“Hah! Those Americans,” you laugh, “Vancouverites would only build houses that ridiculous to skirt the affordability crisis. We’d never stoop to such lows out of malice alone.” Well, don’t speak too soon, imagined reader, Vancouver is home to at least two buildings built purely out of spite.
Local writer Eve Lazarus discovered the oldest spite houses in town on the 100 block of West 10th. A neighbourly feud saw the owner of no. 148 build their house to butt right up against no. 150, intentionally blocking one of its bay windows. Both houses have been granted heritage status, enshrining the spat on a quiet block of Mount Pleasant for years to come.
Our most famous spite house, though, isn’t even a house. In 1913 Chang Toy, the owner of the Sam Kee import company, was feeling pretty rightfully pissed after the city expropriated most of his recently-purchased 30-foot lot in Chinatown to widen Pender St. He had barely more than five feet of width left to work with, but Toy wasn’t about to lose out on his investment. He put up a two-storey building with extended bay windows to maximize floor space. The building was busy, too, with retail on the main floor and a bustling barber shop and bathhouse in the basement. The Sam Kee building, as it’s known, stands to this day. It holds the record of narrowest freestanding commercial building in the world. Proof that success is the greatest ‘screw-you’ around.