In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the stranger happenings in South Africa and further afield. This week: spite houses.
It started when this rather obscure post came up in my news feed in February. It tells the story of Sam Kee, and resonated now in particular because the protagonist – who featured in a TV episode entitled Sam and Uncle Sam – was a key protester against vicious anti-immigrant laws of the time.
I wanted to know more, not least because the US doesn’t seem to have learnt from its past mistakes. Despite the draconian Chinese Exclusion Act, Sam Kee became one of the area’s most successful businessmen. He established one of the first gambling parlours in San Manuel, adding a dairy, a trading store, and a restaurant. He eventually returned to China with his fortune, but not before he caused some trouble for immigration officers. His name pops up in a number of cases of the day, and it’s rumoured there were tunnels under his premises used to smuggle immigrants via Mexico. One story speaks of an officer being paid a “stipend” after discovering one of Sam Kee’s numerous bewildered “nephews” living under the floorboards.
The name Sam Kee left another, lasting stamp, and that’s as the alter ego of businessman Chang Toy, who founded the Sam Kee Company and was often referred to as Sam Kee. The Sam Kee Company became one of the largest merchant firms in Canada in the late 1800s, but is remembered more for a quirky but enduring incident of civil disobedience: the construction of a commercial “spite house” that is today over 100 years old and has claimed its spot in Guinness World Records. In what architecture magazine Spacing Vancouver calls “a common theme in Chinatown’s history”, local authorities announced they were widening the road. This resulted in the expropriation of Chang Toy’s land, and he was offered scant compensation. “The incident is seen as representative of cultural injustices that were often experienced by early Chinese Canadians,” the magazine explains.
Most expected the disgruntled businessman to sell the 1.8m of land he was left with to the neighbouring owner and cut his losses. Not a bit of it. He built what has become famous as the world’s thinnest free-standing building, a three-storey commercial building to boot. Just to flip the bird at authorities a little more, it made use of wide bay windows and an extended basement to maximise space and profitability. Chang Toy’s businesses, too, reportedly had secret tunnels connecting basements beneath the city.
Spite houses are often laughed at, a sign of the petty lengths to which people will go to play tit for tat. But sometimes their stories are much more than that: haunting, remarkable, or testament to the capacity for humour. They become a rallying point for causes big and small, either a lasting symbol of civil disobedience, like the Sam Kee building, smaller fights to preserve local history, or simply an eloquent, wordless four-letter substitute following affronts to dignity.
I’m the last one to judge, I’ll tell you that straight up. I’ve considered calling in the bricklayers for less. We used to live next door to a charming couple who halted their 36-hour Bon Jovi and Jägerbomb marathons only to periodically scream at each other, lock each other out of the house, or once, memorably, actually divide the labour of annoying their neighbours between them: one passing out and the other climbing the fence and drunkenly falling into our garden at six in the morning. Then there’s the time they cut down our hundred-year-old vine in a sporadic fit of reform during which they decided to clean up their surroundings – which, as gardening errors go, wasn’t nearly as endearing as the time our son mistakenly pruned the fairy lights.
Their fights were remarkable, although given their entertainment value, actually one of their less objectionable habits. “You’re a common *****!” the man yelled one night.
“I’m not common!” the woman protested, outraged. One picks one’s battles, I guess.
I’m not going to lie to you. We had the spite fence conversation at least once, if only to ensure only a sober person could climb it. Insert mathematically controlled spikes or a complex system of pulleys, perhaps, which required one to solve a logic puzzle before being granted safe passage. In the end, we just kept the windows closed. But if we’d had a few million and time on our hands, who knows.
The New York Times previously reported on the Plum Island pink house, a timeless reminder to pick one’s mate with caution. The house was built in the 1920s when a woman granted her husband a divorce on grounds that he would build her an exact replica of the house they lived in together. She didn’t specify a location, so he built it slap-bang in the middle of a salt water marsh, ensuring she would have no access to fresh water. Late last year, lobby groups were still campaigning to save the house, which had been earmarked for demolition.
My personal favourite, though, is the Equality House in Kansas. It’s directly opposite the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, painted in the colours of the Pride flag. It’s intended as a message of peace, say the owners, but that’s not to say the interaction hasn’t become an exercise in passive aggression. Upon seeing the rainbow paint job, the Church responded: “We thank God for the Sodomite Rainbow House! It is right across the street from the only church that loves people enough to tell them the Bible truth about the filthy, soul-damning, nation-destroying sin of sodomy.
“The Sodomite Rainbow House helps shine a bright light on this,” they added.
Owner Aaron Jackson, who runs the NGO Planting Peace, appeared unperturbed. “Location, location, location,” he replied. “I bought this house for the view.”
Many of the world’s older spite houses are famous: The Tyler spite house was built for no reason other than to block the municipality’s plans to build a thoroughfare near Dr Tyler’s nice quiet street. A local law stated that the street could not be built if there was a big building project under way, so Tyler laid a foundation overnight, to the bemusement of the street building crew in the morning. (To this day, the road comes to a dead end at the house’s front door.) The heart-breaking Cake House in Gaylordsville was built in a provocative shape in protest against the owner’s foster baby being taken away by the state. The Boston Skinny House is allegedly the result of a dispute between two brothers who inherited a piece of land from their father. While one was serving in the military, the other built himself a nice big house, leaving behind a tiny slice of land he was positive his brother wouldn’t be able to build on. (Nice.) When the soldier returned, he promptly built the extremely narrow house in a strategic position to block his brother’s sunlight and view.
Other, more recent, spite houses have remained in the headlines for months or even years. There’s the wedge-shaped Oregon house constructed in a bitter divorce battle and contested on the basis of “malicious erections” (referring to the property). Then British millionaire Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring (say that three times fast) announced late last year that she would be tearing down the £5-million mews property she bought in 2012 after years and many millions of pounds’ worth of litigation between her, her neighbours, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council. Fittingly, she appeared in a recent episode of Posh Neighbours at War (yes, this show exists: I didn’t know either.) A local touch: South African businessman Niall Carroll is one of the neighbours trying to stop her from building her “dream retirement home”.
Lisle-Mainwaring – although she’s denied consistently that it was for any reason other than a deep and abiding love of deck-chair inspired decor – painted her house in bright red and white candy stripes when the dispute began, after her neighbours complained that the building was an “eyesore”. To add insult to injury, she left one stripe incomplete.
“I suppose I never had a doll’s house and I now like playing house,” she offered by way of explanation. “But of course I was forced to pay an absurd amount on planning and appeals.”
But to return to the theme of civil disobedience: a final long-standing favourite is the Inat Ku?a (House of Spite) restaurant in Sarajevo. The legend goes something like this: in 1878, when Austria-Hungary gained control of Bosnia and Herzegovina, task #1 in the colonisation To Do list was inserting modern urban planning and new technologies, which would be tested for suitability in the rest of the empire. “Spoiler alert,” as Atlas Obscura puts it. “[It] was a project that did not end well.”
Enter the hero of the story: a stubborn elderly local man named Benderija, who opted to stick it to the Sarajevo makeover. When officials set about constructing a “magnificent” new city hall – intended, no doubt, as a display of superiority – he refused to let them clear the land, even after being offered considerably more than his property was worth. The matter went all the way to the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Finances, and Benderija only sold when the authorities agreed to transfer his house, brick by brick, to the opposite side of the river. He spent the duration of the move sitting on a nearby bridge, smoking and watching the labourers move his house brick by brick. The resulting house is now a Bosnian restaurant called Inat Ku?a, and a heritage site.
If you ask me, “spite house” is a misnomer. We need to find a new way to describe these slices of history that reveal so much. Fight house? Plight house? Damn-straight-it’s-my-right house? If our homes are an extension of our identity, our self-expression, these buildings speak far louder than words. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.