“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s the Golden Rule. The Great Commandment. And it’s…total bogus. At least, if you ask anyone who’s ever built a spite house.
A House Of Spite
A spite house is…exactly what you think it is. It’s a building constructed specifically to annoy your neighbors. Maybe you’ve seen a spite fence before, but that’s child’s play. Spite houses are the big leagues. Since they’re not built for convenience or comfort, spite houses often stick out like a sore thumb—such as Boston’s “Skinny House,” shown here.
Although the exact origin of the Skinny House is a little foggy, legend has it started with a dispute between brothers. The two of them inherited a piece of land from their father, but when one of them went away to serve in the military, the other erected a large house on the property, leaving a tiny scrap of land for his brother.
When brother number two returned home and saw what his brother had done, he built the Skinny House, a mere 10 feet wide, to block his brother’s view.
Though spite houses have been built all over the world, they remain a largely American phenomenon. This is partially because the European system of civil law, which governs large portions of the world, forbids them. Some countries, such as Finland, even have explicit laws prohibiting spite houses. And, to be fair, modern Americans can sue their neighbors for building a spite house, and they’re likely to win.
But that’s today. The United States is still littered with spite houses built by embittered neighbors over the centuries. One New York City landowner erected a building that was four stories tall, 100 feet wide…and five feet deep. All because he was offended that his neighbor lowballed him when offering to buy the narrow scrap of land.
Even the first Waldorf Hotel in New York City was built out of spite. William Waldorf Astor didn’t get along with his neighbor—who was also his aunt, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor. So, William tore down his mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel on the land. It towered over his aunt’s house…and also happened to have no windows on that side.
Though they’re less common today, some people have found creative ways to keep the spite house tradition alive. In 2013, the charity Planting Peace bought a house across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church and painted the house in the colors of the pride flag, dubbing the place “Equality House.”
But history’s greatest example of a spite house is also maybe the oldest—and it’s not just a spite house. It’s an entire city. In 541 AD, Emperor Khosrau I sacked the city of Antioch. But he wasn’t entirely heartless. He built an entire new city for the people he captured during the sack. He even based the layout on Antioch. But he wanted to make sure the people there never forgot what he did for them, so he named his new city, literally, “Better Than Antioch, Khosrau Built This.”
Now THAT’S how you spite your neighbor.