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VALENTINE’S MANUAL OF OLD NEW YORK (1929)
THE QUEEREST HOUSE IN THIS COUNTRY
A.G. Van der Weyde
New York for a period of thirty-two years boasted the queerest house in this country, if not in the entire world. This was the famous Richardson “Spite House.” at Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street. The house extended north 104 feet on the avenue, but was only, five feet wide. In general appearance it was not unlike a bicycle case set on end. The house attracted much attention during its brief existence. which terminated a little less than five years ago.
The house was erected to satisfy a personal grudge and the owner lived fifteen years to enjoy the discomfort that it caused the man he wished to spite. The story of the “Spite House,” as a result of much litigation in the courts, is voluminously told in the court records. Briefly this is the story:
In the year 1882 one Hyman Sarner, a clothier, who owned several lots on East 82nd Street, wished to build apartment houses on his property, which extended to within a few feet of Lexington Avenue. On the Lexington Avenue side was a very long and very narrow strip of land, absolutely valueless, he thought, for any building purpose, unless taken in conjunction with adjoining land.
Sarner ascertained that one Joseph Richardson was the owner of the narrow strip along the Avenue. He offered Richardson $1,000 for the land, but Richardson demurred, saying he considered the property worth very much more. He wanted $5,000. Sarner refused to pay this price and Richardson called his
visitor a “tight-wad” and slammed the door on him. Sarner then proceeded with the construction of his apartment house and arranged with the architect who drew the plans that there should be windows overlooking Lexington Avenue. When the. houses were finished Richardson noted the windows and then and there determined upon his curious revenge.
“I shall build me,” he said to his daughtter, “a couple of tall houses on the little strip which will bar the light from Sarner’s windows overlooking my land, and he’ll find he would have profited had he paid me the $5,000.”
The daughter, Della by name, unavailingly protested, as did also Richardson’s wife, that a house only five feet wide would he uninhabitable.
The old man, who had acquired a reputation as a miser, was obdurate. “Not only will I build the houses,” he insisted, “but I will live in one of them and I shall rent to other tenants as well. Everybody is not fat and there will be room enough for people who are not circus or museum folk.”
So, within a year, the house was built. It effectively blocked out the light from all the side windows on Sarner’s property, and old Dir. Richardson was happy. The Richardson “Spite House” was four stories in height and was divided into eight suites, two on each floor. Each suite consisted of three rooms and bath, running along the Lexington Avenue side of the structure.
Only the very smallest furniture could be fitted into the rooms. The stairways were so narrow that only one person could use a stair at a time. If a tenant wished to descend or ascend, from one floor to another, he would, of necessity, have to ascertain that no one else was using the stair. The halls throughout the house were so narrow that one person could pass another only by dodging into of the rooms until the other had passed by. The largest dining table in any of the suites was 18 inches in width. The chairs were proportionately small. The kitchen stoves were the very smallest that are made.
Richardson, with his wife. Emma-she was the old man’s second wife occupying a suite on the ground floor. “Miss Della.” as she was known, the daughter, who followed the example of her penurious father in her mode of life declined to live in the Spite House, declaring that it was “too swell” a structure for her. She was now far along in years and preferred to remain where she had long lived in a dwelling called “the Prison House” on East Houston Street. She was seen by the neighbors only in the early morning, when she swept the steps, visited the grocery store for some bare necessities and returned to immulate herself in her “prison house;’ where she refused to see any visitors.
“Miss Della” was almost as wealthy as her father. She was as avaricious and parsimonious as the old man and owned much property in New York City.
Joseph Richardson died in 1897 at the age of eightyfour. He left his preoperty-including, of course, the famous “Spite. House”-to his widow and the two children, one of whom was the ” Miss Della” of “Prison House” fame. The builder of the “Spite House” was buried in a coffin which he had had made thirty-two ,years earlier and which he had always stored in a room of the house where he lived.
Soon after the old man’s death “Miss Della” brought suit against her stepmother to dispossess her from her quarters in the “Spite House,” Miss Della ” claiming that the aged miser’s wife was merely a tenant and could he evicted upon due notice. Mrs. Richardson fought the case in the courts for many months.
In the year 1902 the “Spite House” was sold by the heirs to James V. Graham and Charles Reckling. later it passed into the possession of C. .A. Stein. a real estate dealer of East 752h Street. and in 1909 it again changed hands.
On August Z(1, 1915. the career of the strange house cattle to a sudden end when I3ing & Bing. real estate operators of 119 West 401h Street, abruptly bought the old building, and in short order tore it down, as well as two adjoining houses. and erected fit their place the big clcvcn-slory apartment house that now stands on the location made historic by the “Spite House.”
New York newspaper turn who visited the “Spite House” wrote interesting stories about the queer building, and it was the subject a generation ago of many jokes and humorous drawings.
Deacon Terry. of “The American.” who is now dead, and who was of rotund figure, was sent by his paper one day in the 90s, to interview Richardson at the “Spite House,*’ He was told at the entrance that Richardson was not in his own apartment on the ground floor and that probable fie had gone up to the roof to see some workmen who were making repairs.
Terry started up but got stuck in the narrow stairway and found that the more he struggled to extricate himself the faster he seemed to become wedged. A tenant from the ground floor tried to help by pushing from below and a tenant from above who wanted to reach the street pushed in the opposite direction. It was a hot midsummer day and the corpulent reporter, perspiring profusely, was getting a pretty good mauling between the two tenants when the happy thought occurred to him of slipping out of his clothes. He found the expedient difficult enough of accomplishment but not impossible. After ten minutes of hard work he had rid himself of his outer garments. Forcing the upstairs tenant before him he proceeded to the roof, and to the interview, in his underclothes. In telling about his adventure later. Terry said that as he struggled on the stairway, he constantly thought of the loss of weight that attends profuse perspiration and could not but wonder how much or how long he would have to perspire to reduce his avoirdupois to such a point that he could disengage himself from the grasp of the stairway.
With special thanks to Peter Sefton, www.victoriansecrets.net
Feature: Just for Spite
Andrew Alpern, Esq.
The physicists tell us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Push against an object and the object pushes back, at least until the force of your action becomes greater than the ability of the object to resist. There is apparently an element of the human character that parallels that law of physics. It is evident when an attempt is made to have a little boy take a bath, or to have a teenager clean up her room. Sometimes, the push-back becomes so counter-productive and even self-defeating that it appears to be generated merely by spite, rather than by rational thought.
This human element of spitefulness appears to come to its fullest flower when adjoining property owners disagree. Spite fences had a long tradition in urban America, at least until legal statutes and judicial decisions evolved as ammunition against them. Their builders have ranged across the social and economic spectrum, with the most spectacular barriers erected by people who possessed large amounts of both spite and money.
Blocking the Sun
Charles Crocker was a very wealthy man in pre-earthquake San Francisco. He erected one of the grandest and most pretentious homes that city had ever seen. With the house sitting on a huge lot that fronted on three streets, one would have assumed that Crocker owned the whole block. In fact, a small house on a small plot fronting on only one of the surrounding streets was owned by one Nicholas Yung, who steadfastly refused to sell to Crocker. Exceptionally spiteful, Crocker determined to blot out the offending holdout structure from view, as well as blocking the sun from reaching Yung’s house. Crocker’s solution was to erect a 40-foot-high wall on his own property that surrounded the holdout land on three sides. This spite fence may have given Crocker satisfaction, but it didn’t budge Mr. Yung, who later moved away but never sold out to Crocker.
The spitefulness of Mr. Crocker and his spite fence fades into the minor leagues, however, when compared with the spitefulness of Joseph Richardson and his Spite House. What is a mere fence when one considers a 100-foot-long four-story brick and stone house?
Many building lots in New York City antedate the mapping of the adjoining streets, so when those streets were cut through, odd-shaped parcels were left over. It wasn’t until the 1870s that upper Lexington Avenue came into being on the East Side of Manhattan, and when it was laid out, a narrow piece of land at the northwest corner of 82nd Street was left over. It was 102 feet long but only five feet wide, so it appeared not to have much use.
It was part of a large parcel of land that had been assembled by Thomas W. McLeay and inherited by his wife Emma Jane when he died in 1865. In 1881 the skinny site was bought by Emily Emmett, along with two more conventionally shaped adjoining lots. Although Emmett’s name appears on the deed, the actual owner was her uncle, Joseph Richardson. Mr. Richardson was a building contractor, a sometimes-developer, and a real estate manipulator who considered it prudent to keep many of his assets in the names of various relatives. He executed projects for the Vanderbilt and Gould families, and was responsible for constructing the expansion of the original Grand Central Depot (now known as Grand Central Terminal). Within the context of the normal business practices of that time, his actions in concealing assets from potential creditors were not especially unusual.
It is not known which was the outgrowth of the other, but besides indirectly buying Emma McLeay’s land in 1881, Mr. Richardson became engaged to her the same year. Early in 1882 they were married, and concurrently Mr. Richardson’s eccentric behavior gained him a curious notoriety.
Patrick McQuade intended to build a pair of walk-up apartment houses on land he owned on 82nd Street directly adjacent to Mr. Richardson’s five-foot strip on Lexington. He felt it would be more profitable if one of his houses could enjoy the benefits of a corner location. He assumed that nothing could be built on the leftover five feet, so he offered $1000 for the strip — $200 less than the figure at which the city had assessed it. Mr. Richardson was said to have had more grandiose ideas, and to have held out for $5000, a price Mr. McQuade was unwilling to pay.
The Bay Window Clause
Undaunted, Mr. McQuade hired the prolific architect Alfred B. Ogden to design his apartment buildings, including windows on the lot line under the assumption that Mr. Richardson’s lot would forever remain vacant. Construction of the pair of buildings began on May 22, 1882, triggering Richardson’s spitefulness. Fresh from just having completed the construction of a marble-fronted row of three conventional one-family residences adjoining to the north, he returned to the drafting board and less than a month later, filed plans for a pair of buildings of his own, each 51 feet long, on the Lexington Avenue sliver lot. While each house was nominally only five feet wide, advantage was taken of a clause in the New York City building regulations that permitted corner houses to have bay window extensions. This enabled the main rooms on each floor to be a little more than seven feet wide. Since the Richardson buildings were much smaller than those of Mr. McQuade, they took less effort to construct, and were completed in November 1882, almost five months earlier than the side-street houses. Perhaps exhausted from the battle with Richardson, Mr. McQuade sold his two apartment houses on September 1, 1884, to Heyman Sarner, a local clothier.
While Richardson must have been a trifle odd to have built such a pair of houses just for spite, he proved himself even stranger, because he actually moved into one of them and lived in it. He rented the other out to tenants at $500 per year. Furnishing a house as narrow as Richardson’s required specially made furniture, the dining table being only 18 inches wide and the chairs proportionately small. The kitchen stove was the smallest the manufacturer had ever constructed, and the beds were barely wide enough to hold their occupants. The staircase and halls in the Spite House were too narrow to permit two people to pass, and for some they weren’t even wide enough for one. The story is told that Deacon Terry, a reporter for The American, was sent to the house one summer day to interview Mr. Richardson and got stuck in the winding staircase. Despite the efforts of neighbors to push him one way or the other, the broad-girthed Mr. Terry remained firmly wedged in. Only by wriggling out of his clothes was he able to extricate himself, and he finished the interview on the roof in his shorts.
Having arrived in New York from his native England in 1833, Mr. Richardson forged a successful career as a contractor and accumulated significant wealth in the process. Despite this, he was frugal in the extreme and went to great lengths to conserve his funds. For years he carried his lunch to work with him in a paper bag (reused until it wore out), and Richardson himself confirmed that he had once persuaded a physician to halve his bill, much in the manner of the infamous multimillionaire Hetty Green, by disguising himself in the raiment of a hod carrier and pleading poverty.
Joseph and Emma Richardson were content to live in the Spite House, but Dellaripha Richardson, Joseph’s daughter by his first wife, refused to visit it, declaring that it was “too swell” for her tastes. She preferred to remain where she had long lived, in a dwelling on East Houston Street called by her neighbors “the Prison House.” Reflecting her father’s penchant for odd behavior, she was seen by the neighbors only in the early morning, when she swept the steps, visited the grocery store for some bare necessities, and returned to immure herself behind barred windows, where she refused to see any visitors.
Spitefulness in the Family
The daughter was as avaricious and parsimonious as the father, and after his death in 1897, she brought suit to contest the will, which gave her stepmother a portion of her father’s estate. Joseph Richardson’s holdings were said to have been worth something between $4 million and $30 million, but little could be located. Dellaripha herself refused to turn over to the Surrogate’s Court some strongboxes of her father’s she had been keeping, and did so only when threatened with jail. When the boxes were opened, the bonds they were supposed to have contained had vanished. Other assets similarly disappeared, showing up later in her vault and that of her brother George. When the legal battle over the will was finally resolved and the document admitted to probate two years later, barely enough cash was realized to pay the $50,000 legacy Mr. Richardson had left to his Baptist pastor, the $17,500 he left to pay off the mortgage on his church, and to reimburse the $200,000 his widow asserted she had spent on legal fees.
Emma Richardson was not finished fighting with her stepdaughter, however. In August 1900 and again the following November, Dellaripha brought a claim against her stepmother in an attempt to dispossess her from the Spite House so it could be sold for the daughter’s benefit. Although Joseph Richardson had transferred ownership of the Spite House to his wife in 1892, in 1896 he gave his daughter a deed to the same property. Thinking she owned the building, Dellaripha claimed the old woman was merely a tenant-at-will and could be evicted. The judge who dismissed the suits expressed regret that he couldn’t find some harsher way to deal with the difficult stepdaughter.
Mr. Richardson’s Spite House cramped his neighbor’s building, and was a local landmark for more than thirty years, but in September of 1915 it vanished, a victim of progress. The real estate development firm of Bing and Bing bought the Richardson property as well as the adjacent Sarner houses and tore them down to make room for a newer and larger apartment house. Mr. Richardson’s adjoining marble-fronted row remains, however, converted to stores on the ground floor with apartments above.
Andrew Alpern is an architectural historian, architect, and attorney. This article is adapted from his 1984 book, New York’s Architectural Holdouts, republished in 1996 by Dover Publications. Alpern’s latest book is The New York Apartment Houses of Rosario Candela and James Carpenter, published by Acanthus Press.