If you read our post two weeks ago about the largest historic home in Old Town Alexandria, yes the 12,000+ sqft and 150+ year old Vowell-Smith house, and thought to yourself "it's nice, but way too big for me." Maybe the house I'm going to talk about today is more your speed. Yes, we're shifting gears from the largest home in Old Town to the smallest house in Old Town (and actually one of the smallest homes in the United States.
In an area where space is a rarity and narrow or small homes are everywhere you turn (our house is only 15' wide), what does is take to claim the "bragging" rights for most miniature maison? Well, it takes some creative use of space and a neighborly grudge, or at least that's one story we've heard.
Located at 523 Queen Street and situated between two larger homes, this 7' wide, 36' deep, and 325 sqft brick home claims the prize for most diminutive dwelling. Nicknamed the "Spite House," (or Spitehouse) the home was built by brick maker John Hollensbury in 1830 and is one of Historic Old Town's four alley or "spite" homes.
All four homes share the distinguishing characteristic of being constructed within an alley of two larger homes, and The term "spite house" come from the fact that these homes were constructed out of the spite the owners of the larger homes had for people passing through their alleys. Though this common characteristic is shared by the four houses, the home on Queen is both the narrowest and the smallest.
Wendy and I have actually heard three different stories of how the house came to be. Each has it's own charm and each is a bit of local lore, so we'll let you be the judge and choose the one you like the best.
The first story we learned of after we moved here is actually the one we've heard retold most often. The house to the left of the spite house at 525 Queen Street was build by John Hollensbury in 1780 (or 1801 depending on the research you're reviewing). Supposedly, Mr. Hollensbury grew very tired and annoyed by the constant foot, horse, and carriage traffic in the alley that disturbed he and his daughters at all hours of the day and night. Out of his tremendous spite for these unwanted loiterers and passers by, Mr. Hollensbury constructed the tiny home to thwart the nuisance and provide he and his daughters with a good night's sleep...at last.
The second of the potential truths surrounding the construction of this tiny tenement is rooted far more in a neighbor's grudge. Legend has it that Mr. Hollensbury and his neighbor who occupied the home at 521 Queen Street were good friends early on in their relationship. However, as they continued to live next to each other, they began to have more frequent disagreements due to their close proximity to one another. Most notably, Mr. Hollensbury despised his neighbor's oversized carriage. Too large to properly fit in the alley, it frequently scraped the side of Mr. Hollensbury's home, damaging the brick he had worked so hard to make and build into his home. Their neighbor friendship continued to sour until the mid to late 1820s when, due to an unknown dispute, Mr. Hollensbury couldn't take it anymore. The culprit, possibly an unsettled gambling dept, an unfavorable personal review, or even some untruths told or rumors started about Mr. Hollensbury, nobody really knows, but everyone suspects it was simply that damn carriage.
No matter the catalyst their friendship was irreparably fractured and Mr. Hollensbury could no longer stand being neighbors with the man he had developed such spite for. Rather than flee the quarrel and move away from the home he had built and was raising his daughters in, Mr. Hollensbury devised a plan. He purchased the alley lot for $45.65 and began to construct the small alley home and effectively remove his antagonist from the role of his next door neighbor, and to eliminate the nuisance of the oversized carriage. Once the home was constructed he no longer needed to interact with his former neighbor and was able to tolerate the man as simply another neighbor on the block rather than his next door neighbor.
The final story we've uncovered is one of a much more favorable circumstance surrounding the construction of the humble home. Though not as scandalous as spite inspired construction, I actually like this one the best. Though I've not been able to uncover their exact ages, Mr. Hollensbury had two daughters in the early 19th century. Both daughters were born and raised in the home at 525 Queen Street. Mr. Hollensbury loved his daughters very much and wanted to spoil them as best he could. As I mentioned, Mr. Hollendbury had success in Alexandria as a brick maker, so he leveraged his profession to spoil his daughters in the best way he knew how. Mr. Hollensbury decided to use the bricks he had made in his profession to build his daughters a small play house in the alley next to their home. In this situation, the house so often known to have been built out of spite for foot traffic or quarreling neighbors had actually been built out of love for his daughters. It is believe that Mr. Hollensbury's daughter, Julia, who died in 1901, loved her play house so much that she actually decided to live in her very own playhouse for at least part of her adult life. But perhaps the carriage was actually too large, and his daughter's playhouse was simply a convenient excuse.
Over the years we've heard any variation or combination of the above three stories. Each has its own fun elements that make it a good story to retell. As with most historic homes of any significance, much of the fun exists in the legends associated with them, so we'll just go on believing a bit of all three.
One fact that doesn't quite jive with all of the stories is the fact that the red painted brick home to the right was actually built in 1870, some 40 years after the little home was built. At some point I will try to do a bit more research in the library to see what stood in the lot to the right prior to 1870. Most likely a home that was torn down.
The Spite House itself is a shining example of what is possible when you strive for an efficient and effective use of the space you have. Though the owner doesn't live or stay in the home, it is configured as a residence that can easily accommodate a small family.
Though the small size and footprint of the living area is draw for the countless tourists I've seen standing in front of the house for a photo opportunity with their arms outstretched, the original character and details inside are stunning. From the heart pine floors to the painted brick walls that are actually the exterior walls of the neighboring houses with visible scrapes from the oversized carriages to the original banister and molding, the quaint interior is more warm than cramped.
The kitchen and utilities are a shining example of efficient use and organization of limited space. Even the back yard, though small, it incredible usable. The house could even accommodate a small party (very small).
For all of its gawk factor as a tiny house, the house is also an historic gem that Old Town is lucky to have. The various legends that surround the house only add to the overall interest. With all of the downsizing and reduced footprints of today's world, I'd say that this tiny little dwelling was simply ahead of its time.