Works of architecture are often a portal into the headspace of their creators, speaking a unique language of personality, moods, and obsessions. There are few places where this more visually apparent than at Alexandria, Virginia’s squat blue spite house. The two-century-old residence was a delicious poke in the eye to contemporary neighbors and has now become a beloved part of Old Town’s historic fabric.
The man in question here was a local brickmaker and city council member, John Hollensbury. From his nearby home on Queen Street, Hollensbury had a front row seat to a chaotic alley scene of loitering ruffians and dangerous cut through traffic. By 1830 the side of his home was pockmarked from all the collisions with wagons and Hollensbury decided he’d had enough.
In the modern day, the first instinct in a similar situation might be to complain to the police, your neighborhood listserve, or perhaps pursue legal action. Hollensbury had a refreshing streak of self reliance and simply began bricking off the alleyway in question. Two parallel walls and a roof transformed the former byway into a quaint addition to his personal residence. Ripley’s Believe it or Not dubbed it the narrowest house in America.
It’s unclear if any of this was permitted or legal back in 1830. Hollensbury’s seat on the Common Council might have given him the audacity to just build it without asking permission. However, because of the glorious power of Ex Post Facto law, the spite house has been grandfathered into the modern building code, and is presently occupied part of the year. From inside the living room you can still see the spots where wagons smashed against the brick walls and incited the fury of John Hollenbury.
The Atlas Obscura Podcast is a short, daily celebration of all the world’s strange and wondrous places. Check out this episode about spite houses.