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 83rd 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 ex-tended 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 Richard-son 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 over-looking 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 daughter, “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 pro-tested, as did also Richardson’s wife, that a house only five feet wide would be 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 Mr. 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 per-son could pass another only by dodging into one 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, Emmashe was the old man’s second wifeoccupied 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 immolate 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 eighty-four. He left his propertyincluding, 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 be 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 75th Street, and in 1909 it again changed hands.
On August 20, 1915, the career of the strange house came to a sudden end when Bing & Bing, real estate operators of 119 West 40th Street, abruptly bought the old building, and in short order tore it down, as well as two adjoining houses, and erected in their place the big eleven-story apartment house that now stands on the location made historic by the “Spite House.”
New York newspaper men 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 probably he had gone up to the roof to see some workmen who were making repairs.
Terry started up, but got stuck in the narrow stair-way 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 re-porter, 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 re-duce his avoirdupois to such a point that he could disengage himself from the grasp of the stairway.