Monday, August 27, 2012

The Lost 1882 "Spite House" -- No. 1218 Lexington Avenue

Seven years after it was demolished, the New York Tribune published this photo -- New York Tribune, photo by Van der Wyde, December 17, 1922 (copyright expired)

When Joseph Richardson died on June 8, 1897 there was only one thing the public remembered about the eccentric millionaire, and it was not his vast wealth.  The English-born contractor had built the Bridgeport Water Works and, with the Gould family, constructed railroads including portions of the Union Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, Iron Mountain and Mexican Central Railroads.  Upon his death it was said he owned stock in nearly every railroad in the country and ran a fleet of boats between New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Although he was worth approximately $20 million at the time of his death, he had disdained the glitter of New York social life and shunned publicity. 

“His was a quiet, unostentatious life, devoted entirely to the making and saving of money,” said The Sun on the day following his death.  The newspaper went on to say:

He was tall and gaunt, and his clothes, always of the most ordinary make and material, hung from his body in a baggy way.  He was the last man any one would take for a millionaire, and in this he had taken a curious pride for years.  He liked to be mistaken for a poor man and despised publicity of any kind.  All he cared about was to be let alone, and the incident which made his existence known to more people than had ever known of it before was a sad blow to him.

The “incident” to which The Sun referred was the building of a house at the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 82nd Street.   The miserly man who often said he would rather throw away $10,000 than to see his name appear in the newspapers fell victim to his own bitter vengeance.  It resulted in his being thrust into what The Sun called “peculiar prominence.”

It all started when, in 1882, Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner laid plans to build an apartment house at the northwest corner of 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue in the quickly-developing Upper East Side neighborhood.  They purchased the necessary plots for the project—all except for a narrow strip of land extending along Lexington Avenue.

The odd little strip—102 feet long and 5 feet wide--was owned by Richardson’s wife, Emma, whom he had married just a year earlier.  When the city’s grid plan was laid out, it left anomalous scraps of property as the streets and avenues dissected large estates.  Della Richardson had inherited the sliver from her deceased first husband, Colonel Maclay.

To McQuade and Sarner, the five-foot-wide piece of land was worthless to Richardson.  To Richardson, whom The New York Times later described as “eccentric, strong-willed, and thrifty,” it was a valuable piece of real estate that the developers desperately needed to complete their plans.   It was a difference of opinion that would result in “the incident.”

Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner approached Richardson and offered him $1,000 for the lot.   Richardson countered with his own valuation: $5,000.   The developers balked.  Rather than being railroaded, they proceeded to build their apartments.

As ground was broken in May 1882, Sarner went back to Richardson, according to The Sun, and offered to give the full $5,000.  But it was now Richardson who refused.  Sarner “was considerably taken back when Richardson informed him that he never gave a man more than one opportunity to buy anything from him, and that the strip was no longer for sale,” said the newspaper.

A month later Richardson broke ground himself.

Joseph Richardson told his daughter by his previous marriage, Dellarifa (known familiarly as Della), that he intended to build “a couple of tall houses” that would block the light to the apartment building.  Although both Dellarifa and Emma tried to dissuade him, he was steadfast.  “Not only will I build the houses, but I will live in one of them,” he insisted.

And so he did.

Richardson’s houses were completed in November, five months before the McQuade and Sarner project was finished.  Only five feet wide and 100 feet long, the pair matched the apartment building in height—four floors.    Constructed of red brick with white marble trim they appeared to be a single residence, causing the press to quickly dub it “The Spite House.”

Scientific American published this sketch in January 1897.   Within five months Joseph Richardson, who lived in the house in the foreground, would be dead (copyright expired)

The New York Times described the house.  “Its narrow front is broken by deep bay windows, its small rooms are reached by a spiral staircase and supplied with furniture constructed especially to fit them.  Every room is less than five feet wide, and the dining table is only eighteen inches wide.  Gas is unknown above the first floor, and water has to be carried by hand all over the building.”

The Sun added that the front doors of the two houses were close together and “are very narrow doors and lead to an interior hall 8 feet 6 inches long by 9 feet 8 inches deep.  One-half of this hall is taken up by a semi-circular stairway, which runs to the top floor.  From the hall a passageway 14 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide leads to the one room on each floor, which room, about 18 feet long by 9 feet 8 inches wide, is formed by the expansion of the second bay.”  It was by the use of bay windows—allowed on corner houses by building code—that Richardson was able to expand the size of the rooms.

Emma Richardson would describe the house as "comfortable."  The artist perhaps purposely omitted the dining table in the above sketch -- New York Journal, June 5, 1897 (copyright expired)

There were five “fair-sized rooms” in each house, said The Sun, with five large closets, five passageways and five halls.  Astonishingly, Richardson managed to fit a lot into the constricted space.  “The dining room is on the first floor,” explained The Sun, “and in it there is a table, a sofa, a sideboard, and several chairs.  Built against the wall on one side is an ornate mantelpiece.  The rooms on the upper floors are bedrooms, and each contains a folding bed, besides other furniture.  It is this adaptation of the furnishing to the conditions that changes the appearance of things.  You do not notice anything very odd once you get into the rooms.  There is perhaps a sense of being cramped, but that is principally because you know what a box-like structure you are in.”

Richardson and his wife moved into the corner house and he rented the other.  Daughter Della, a grown woman who matched her father in eccentricity and avariciousness, moved to East Houston Street where she was rarely seen by neighbors and refused to accept visitors.  The New York Tribune later remarked “Notwithstanding her wealth, she prefers to live in East Houston Street over a store, and it is an undertaking involving much persistent effort to get her to answer a ring at the doorbell.”

A year after moving in, Emma Richardson told a reporter from The Sun that the house was “as comfortable as any she had ever lived in, and that there was more room in it than she and her husband needed.”  The only drawback, she mused, “was the absence of backyards; but then, she declared, one couldn’t have everything on a five-foot lot.”

Fifteen years after moving in, the 84-year old Richardson was gravely ill.  A harsh headline in the New York Tribune mocked “His Grave to Be as Wide as His Home.”  He died on June 8, 1897 and his obituaries, rather than relive his accomplishments in the railroad and transportation industry, dwelled on his vindictive erection of The Spite House.

In 1865 Richardson had had a wooden coffin made to his specifications from timber cut from his own property in New England and stored in his barn there.  Either the primitive coffin was built too small, or Richardson had grown in the ensuing 32 years.  At any rate he did not fit.  The predicament would have puzzled the dead man, for he expected it to be too large.

The New York Times recalled, “'I am a working man,' he used to say. 'I want no fuss either in life or death.  If my coffin is too large, fill in the empty space with sawdust.’”

The sawdust was unnecessary.  Instead, to allow Richardson’s body to fit, the coffin was disassembled.  “The sides, top and bottom were screwed to the interior of the more modern casket,” reported The New York Times, “thereby carrying out the wishes of the dead man to the letter.”  Now the problem was getting the casket, laden with Joseph Richardson, out of the confined Spite House by way of the spiral staircase.

While the casket was being wrangled down the staircase, the street outside filled with gawkers.  “Unusual public and neighborly interest was awakened by the funeral of Joseph Richardson, the venerable and eccentric millionaire,” reported The New York Times.  "Several hundred persons assembled near the unique home of the dead man—the noted five-foot-wide 'spite house'…and watched with much curiosity for the appearance of the funeral party.”

The man who shunned publicity was, even in death, the center of it—all owing to an act of vengeance.  “The few blocks through which the funeral procession passed were crowded with spectators,” recounted the newspaper.  “Every doorway was filled with people, and eager faces peered from every window.  The demeanor of the on-lookers, however, was noticeably quiet and respectful.  At the church, where there also was a large crowd, the ingenuity of the undertaker’s aids was taxed to a greater extent than at the house, in lifting the coffin up the narrow, bended stairway, by which the audience room of the church was reached.”

Ironically, Reverend Harry M. Warren, the pastor of the Central Park Baptist Church, noted in his address that one of the last requests made by Richardson was “that there should be as little ostentation as possible about his burial.”

Richardson’s son and daughter, George and Della, immediately set about overturning his will which left about one-third of his $20 million estate to Emma.   Justice Ingraham remarked that the action of his children against their step mother made evident “considerable antagonism.”  George and Della sought to have Emma evicted from the skinny Lexington Avenue house and to receive nothing.  Not until May 25, 1900, after George had died, was the will admitted to probate much to the disappointment of Della (who received nearly $13.5 million—almost $300 million today).

Emma did not stay in the Lexington Avenue house for long.  The Richardson heirs sold the house in 1902 to Charles Reckling and James Varnum Graham.  The corner house where Emma and Joseph had lived was now home to 46-year old Henry Kral, a Danish musician.  Although the new owners reported they “have not yet decided just how they will finally utilize it,” they suggested that the ground floor would be converted to offices “which could be readily rented, and to which tenants who need but little space would be attracted through the novelty of the building,” said The New York Times.

Within only two years the house was boarded up and vacant, owned now by Edward A. Boyd.  The upper floors had been converted to a single residence and the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide reported that Boyd had filed plans to install six stores at ground level.  Later that year he sold the building to C. A. Stein.

By the time this side view was taken, stores had already been installed at street level.  The Sun had said of it "the building has a rather imposing front; it is when you get around the corner that you discover how deceiving appearances may be."  Sarner's and McQuade's apartment houses appear at left.  --photo New York Public Service Commission

The Spite House was back in the news on November 5, 1911 as the Lexington Avenue subway line was being built.  The excavations endangered the slender structure and The New York Times reported “It’s going to cost the Bradley Contracting Company, however, $15,000 to shore up one building, which is hardly worth the money.  That is the famous Richardson ‘Spite House’ at Eighty-second Street.”

On August 19, 1915 Stein sold the building to real estate developers Bing & Bing.  It was the end of the road for the five-foot-wide architectural anomaly.

Just two days later the New-York Tribune announced that “the spite house…one of the structural curios of the city” was to come down.  Bing & Bing commissioned architect Emery Roth to design a modern apartment house on the site of the Sarner and McQuade building—which had started the entire affair—and the Spite House.   A year later there was no trace of one of New York City’s most unusual buildings and eccentric characters.  And had Joseph Richardson not given in to spite and revenge, his name would be forgotten today—the one thing he most wished for and never got.

Emory Roth's 1915 apartment house still stands on the site of Richardson's "Spite House" -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. I love reading your blog, even though i've never been to manhattan!
    i wish someone would write a similar one in cincinnati!


  2. You should visit! And you're right ... Cincinnati is filled with interesting archtecture and history. Ripe for a similar blog.

  3. Reading this morning out of The Word for You Today,, book . The story was about The Spite House. Showing how being spiteful because of greed, or bitterness, is not a smart way to live your life. I was so intrigued by this story I had to Google it to see if it was real. Wow, dont know if I would have believed this story had I not read it for myself. Interesting!

  4. Someone sent me the info via The Word for Today. As a Realtor, I thought to read up for more details. It is really insightful to say the least. Such a huge lesson. May greed and hatred not consume us.

  5. Fascinating! I googled it too, after reading about it on 'The Word for Today.'